Voting Machines #1

While watching the Democratic convention last week, mostly to see what Kerry was up to now, I noticed ex-senator Max Cleland on the stage, and I wondered whatever happened to him. That quest led me into the mid-term election of 2002, when he lost his seat to a challenger. At the time, the punsters and pollsters said it was due to a last-minute surge among “angry white men”, led by Mr. Bush’s active campaigning. A subsequent study by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office indicated that there was no last-minute surge, except maybe by black women. Cleland led the polls, right up to the election, by 5% or more.

So what happened? A possible answer, and I emphasize the word “possible”, is that the victory had something to do with the newly installed Diebold touch-screen voting machines. Will we ever know? Probably not, unless somebody made a careless mistake, and therein lies my story.

In the wake of the Florida fiasco, the Feds came up with several billion dollars so the states could obtain the latest in computer voting technology. This technology is typically a Windows-based general purpose Intel pc, with some special software to control the voting process and a touch-screen where the voter goes through a series of candidate choices. No more hanging chads, no more overvotes, no more confusion with butterfly ballots. There are a handful of companies in the business of making these terminals, and they are presently doing a very fine business.

In Georgia’s case, they purchased 22,000+ Diebold machines, which were first used in the 2002 election. Cleland had been leading the polls comfortably all during the campaign. On election day, all the voters go to the polls and use the Diebold machines. After the votes are counted, Cleland loses by about 5%, a swing of 10%. Anyway you cut it, that’s quite a large swing in just a few days (the numbers vary slightly, depending on which poll you use). And Cleland wasn’t the only democrat in Georgia to get a nasty surprise. The incumbent democratic governor, Barnes, similarly ahead in all the polls, also lost by a similar margin.

Surely there are safeguards, right? Certainly the State of Georgia would take the necessary steps to insure the integrity of the election, right? Why then are we not really too surprised to now find out that the voting machines were anything but secure, that the government was basically incompetent to manage a technologically complicated project, in the same way monopoly utility companies are generally incompetant to manage high-tech nuclear power stations?

Diebold, based in Canton, Ohio, is nowhere close to a disinterested party in the election. The CEO of the company is a Bush Pioneer (the innermost circle of money raisers), and is very committed to supporting republican candidates. A quick look at the political donations of other executives at Diebold shows a similar inclination. Would Diebold even think of stealing an election? With God on your side, and the libruls being evil, I think my answer is yes. Righteousness can justify any number of sins. Could they have done it, given Georgia’s presumed oversight? I’m afraid the answer is again yes. A more disturbing thing is that any number of other people could have also done it.

You see, the machines weren’t really up to commercial standards when they started shipping them in the summer of 2002. Multiple code changes and general mayhem seemed to be the order of the day. Georgia had contracted with a university professor to certify the software, but given the confusion, it is not certain that he got the very latest software to test, and the last update he did receive was so close to the election that he didn’t go through the entire process. Plus, his testing/examination wasn’t particularly rigorous, nor did he test/examine all parts of the software. As an example, the Microsoft operating system, because it was “COTS” (commercial off-the-shelf) software, was not examined.

What about a recount? Well, given the way the machines operate, it isn’t possible. Plus you’d probably get the same (perhaps invalid) totals no matter how many times you recounted. What about examining the machines for any bogus code? Any clever programmer would make sure the bad code would self-destruct after the election, plus Georgia made it illegal (a felony, no less) for anyone not part of the State to examine the machines. As it turns out, someone found an unprotected copy of the software on an FTP site (so the installers could quickly get all the updates in a timely fashion), so outsiders did get a chance to look at it. There’s some argument about whether or not that was the actual code that ran on election day, but just the fact that anybody could examine it is bad bad news. The outsiders (first Johns Hopkins, perhaps illegally, and then SAIC, under contract to the state) all agreed that the software was miserable from a security standpoint.

I’m generally not inclined to conspiracy theories. But the “dots” that you could connect in the Georgia upsets are somewhat more compelling than the “dots” that led to the Iraqi invasion. To me, the real problem here isn’t the two elections, as important as they were, given the politics of the moment. It’s that now the voters really don’t have much assurance that their votes will actually get counted at all. Some 30% of Georgia voters now do not have confidence in their state’s elections. With the new machines, all of them, there is generally no way to verify their proper operation. The vendors all say to trust them, but come on, we’ve never trusted any single entity with the conduct of an election. Human nature being what it is, the temptations are just too great.

July 30, 2004

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