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Trusting vote to machines

Alan Braunholtz

“To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.”

Anyone who voted Tuesday experienced the modern technical marvel of a black pen and paper. Mine worked flawlessly, but its days are numbered.

After Florida’s election debacle, the Help America Vote Act came into being. High-tech lobbyists pushed hard and were rewarded with this $4 billion act to replace old mechanical machines with automatically recording computers – “Wow! Touch screen, liquid crystal” technology swoon.



According to the companies that make and control them, these are computers and therefore flawless, accurate and secure. Huh? Obviously they haven’t spent much time wandering around any office floor listening to the “What the …! You bastard!” “Come on, come on,” etc., that punctuates mankind’s interaction with computers.

Hacking and fraud seem to occur within any computer system. Security concerns with these virtual voting booths are aggravated by the refusal of the companies that developed them to allow the internal source code to be examined for flaws or holes. That’s a trade secret.



Maybe, but we’re talking about “free and fair” elections, the cornerstone of democracy, not some talking toy software application. Everything about the voting process should be transparent and open to examination, which should include the code that controls the machines. If your machine counts votes, its code should be public property.

Some technology laboratories refused to certify the machines, since they couldn’t examine the code. Luckily, one company (Diebold) inadvertently left its source code on a publicly accessible Web site and it’s been examined by computer security experts. Their verdict: This machine is easily tampered with.

Unskilled hackers could gain access on election day, monitor the vote tally, cast multiple votes with a home-made smart card, and terminate counting on that machine. Alarmed, the state of Maryland asked for a review by the industry’s own consulting firm, SAIC, before it bought some. SAIC found the machines “at high risk to compromise.”



These machines are called direct recording electronic voting systems and they do exactly that. No paper trail is produced as a back-up for problems or spot checks. What the computer says is what you get. You can’t check.

But physical records are vital for detecting mistakes or fraud. Find an extra million or so on your bank statement and you know it’ll be discovered. Somewhere, someone is missing a million pieces of paper. Regular reports of corporate fraud, dishonesty and other illegal behavior in the pursuit of whatever they desire don’t instill me with trust in their machines just because they say so.

The computer security industry is concerned about the integrity of these DRE machines, but so far the powers that be prefer to listen to their friends lobbying for their share of the $4 billion.

This is where the conspiracy theories come in. I never believe in conspiracy theories. These fiendishly clever plots would have no chance in the real world of clumsy ineptness and bad luck, especially if they involve a government department. The DMV may be evil, but it’s hardly Machiavellian.

Still, conspiracy theories are fun, if nothing else, so here goes:

These machines are all a plot to steal elections through Trojan horses in the source code. The fact that the companies that produce them are extremely partisan lends credence to this theory. The CEO of Diebold is a Bush supporter, pledging $200,000 and his home state of Ohio to the president. Realizing how his words might be misconstrued, he helpfully clarified that he didn’t mean rigging the machines, just fund-raising. But too late to stop the e-mail fire.

Another company, ES+S, used to be headed by Sen. Chuck Hagel. Hagel won his seat in 1996 in an upset in which black precincts voted Republican for the first time ever. ES+S machines counted the vote. Other strange upsets included the defeat of Georgia’s Max Cleland against all the poll predictions. Diebold applied some last-minute software patches to their machines and then removed and destroyed all of the memory cards immediately after the election. Paper ballots are kept for 22 months.

In Canal County, Texas, three candidates all won their races by the exact same margin, 18,181 votes, and in San Luis Obispo 57 Diebold machines phoned home to Ohio to report the mid-day voter tally.

I can’t believe a word of it. Inept and badly designed machines, yes, but a conspiracy? No. There are several ways to deflect criticism of the machines or conspiracy. One involves the machines creating a paper receipt (like an ATM) of each vote, which is then deposited in a box by the voter. This creates a physical record that can be checked if needed. Independent audits keep people and machines honest. Bill HR 2239, by Rep. Rush Holt, supports independent verification. But to get through, it needs support. Call your congressman.

Cryptographers are developing other schemes that look better. Either way, allowing even the appearance of inaccuracy or impropriety is foolish. Even the paranoid should believe their vote counted.

Conspiracy theory buffs should check out http://www.blackboxvoting.org for something new. It sure beats black U.N. helicopters and hidden aliens.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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