Daily Archives: October 14, 2003

EVoting Machines Fail to Count Democratic Votes

A number of people working on the question of electronic voting are starting to make their research and findings public. So far, it’s not a pretty story–or a reassuring one. According to Mark Crispin Miller, Rebecca Mercuri’s work on the California recall shows that significant numbers of ballots–close to 10%–were uncounted in heavily Democratic LA County, and a statistical analysis showed fairly conclusively that touchscreens were the worst:

The Sequoia Edge touchscreens, currently under litigation in Riverside County, performed slightly worse than the Datavote punchcards. The ES&S iVotronic touchscreens were ranked lowest of the three touchscreen types in the state, and were outperformed by all other systems with the exception of the Sequoia Optech optically scanned systems and the Pollstar and Votomatic punchcards. (emphasis added)

She concludes:

The rush to fully computerized ballot casting is misguided. Although supplemental technologies are needed for disabled voters, there is no clear evidence that touchscreen systems are substantially or consistently better for use by the general population than other voting methods. The fact that the touchscreens in California do not provide any way to perform an independent recount should make them less desirable than the paper-based systems that do have such capabilities. Counties, like San Francisco, that are doing well with optically scanned ballots, and the smaller ones that use punchcards effectively, should feel no pressure to modernize.

This is bad enough news for election officials who have planned changeovers to touchscreens–and thousands have, all over the country–but it gets worse.

An anonymous source Miller identifies only as “My friend in South Carolina” claims to have done what s/he calls a “number crunch” on the CA vote tallies which shows some surprising anomalies:

I ran a number crunch of CA counties that use Diebold machines to cast/count votes and found some weird figures that show a skim of votes from top candidates to people who were unlikely to affect the outcome.

It looks like, as one might expect, at the top of the list as if there is a slight variance from an even state wide distribution. However many ‘lower ticket’ candidates have vote totals that ONLY correlate with the use of Diebold equipment! I have included some names chosen at random from the result list that show that not all lower order candidates were used to receive skimmed votes. Note that Diebold’s counties are spread geographically over the whole of California.

If true, is this a just glitch in the program? Or a deliberate attempt by Diebold–a huge contributor to Republican coffers–to swing the vote?

Before we all get paranoid, I think it’s important to point out that, accurate or not, an anonymous statistical report raises as many questions as it may answer–like, why do it anonymously in the first place? As intriguing as the analysis may be, the fact that the analyst doesn’t wish to be known is somewhat suspicious. Grain o’ salt time.

If that’s all it was, we could probably relax. But it isn’t. An excellent article in The Independent shows the same types of anomalies in tightly contested races in Georgia:

Something very odd happened in the mid-term elections in Georgia last November. On the eve of the vote, opinion polls showed Roy Barnes, the incumbent Democratic governor, leading by between nine and 11 points. In a somewhat closer, keenly watched Senate race, polls indicated that Max Cleland, the popular Democrat up for re-election, was ahead by two to five points against his Republican challenger, Saxby Chambliss.Those figures were more or less what political experts would have expected in state with a long tradition of electing Democrats to statewide office. But then the results came in, and all of Georgia appeared to have been turned upside down. Barnes lost the governorship to the Republican, Sonny Perdue, 46 per cent to 51 per cent, a swing of as much as 16 percentage points from the last opinion polls. Cleland lost to Chambliss 46 per cent to 53, a last-minute swing of 9 to 12 points.

This is much more disturbing. Pollsters have honed their techniques to a fare-thee-well and can boast remarkably accurate election predictions for almost a solid decade. Now electronic voting machines enter the picture and suddenly polling has become wildly inaccurate? And it would seem that the machines are the only variable:

There were also big, puzzling swings in partisan loyalties in different parts of the state. In 58 counties, the vote was broadly in line with the primary election. In 27 counties in Republican-dominated north Georgia, however, Max Cleland unaccountably scored 14 percentage points higher than he had in the primaries. And in 74 counties in the Democrat south, Saxby Chambliss garnered a whopping 22 points more for the Republicans than the party as a whole had won less than three months earlier.Now, weird things like this do occasionally occur in elections, and the figures, on their own, are not proof of anything except statistical anomalies worthy of further study. But in Georgia there was an extra reason to be suspicious. Last November, the state became the first in the country to conduct an election entirely with touchscreen voting machines, after lavishing $54m (?33m) on a new system that promised to deliver the securest, most up-to-date, most voter-friendly election in the history of the republic. The machines, however, turned out to be anything but reliable. With academic studies showing the Georgia touchscreens to be poorly programmed, full of security holes and prone to tampering, and with thousands of similar machines from different companies being introduced at high speed across the country, computer voting may, in fact, be US democracy’s own 21st-century nightmare.

In many Georgia counties last November, the machines froze up, causing long delays as technicians tried to reboot them. In heavily Democratic Fulton County, in downtown Atlanta, 67 memory cards from the voting machines went missing, delaying certification of the results there for 10 days. In neighbouring DeKalb County, 10 memory cards were unaccounted for; they were later recovered from terminals that had supposedly broken down and been taken out of service. (emphasis added)

And the worst part is, the companies control the machines, not the public election officials. The report continues:

It is still unclear exactly how results from these missing cards were tabulated, or if they were counted at all. And we will probably never know, for a highly disturbing reason. The vote count was not conducted by state elections officials, but by the private company that sold Georgia the voting machines in the first place, under a strict trade-secrecy contract that made it not only difficult but actually illegal – on pain of stiff criminal penalties – for the state to touch the equipment or examine the proprietary software to ensure the machines worked properly. (emphasis added)

And Georgia was not alone this past election season:

There were other…[states with big last-minute swings in voting patterns] – in Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and New Hampshire – all in races that had been flagged as key partisan battlegrounds, and all won by the Republican Party. Again, this was widely attributed to the campaigning efforts of President Bush and the demoralisation of a Democratic Party too timid to speak out against the looming war in Iraq.Strangely, however, the pollsters made no comparable howlers in lower-key races whose outcome was not seriously contested. Another anomaly, perhaps. What, then, is one to make of the fact that the owners of the three major computer voting machines are all prominent Republican Party donors? Or of a recent political fund-raising letter written to Ohio Republicans by Walden O’Dell, Diebold’s chief executive, in which he said he was “committed to helping Ohio to deliver its electoral votes to the president next year” – even as his company was bidding for the contract on the state’s new voting machinery? (emphasis added)

Smelling a rat, some angry Georgian voters decided to investigate and discovered that their machines had never been certified–which was illegal–and had performed so badly (“erratically”, the article says) that Diebold had to write a patch to correct the problem. Instead of sending the patch out by disc, however, Diebold made the patch downloadable over the internet like a game or a screensaver. Anybody could access it. A breach of security so big it’s hard to overestimate. An Atlanta computer expert examined the code:

Roxanne Jekot, a computer programmer with 20 years’ experience, and an occasional teacher at Lanier Technical College northeast of Atlanta, did a line-by-line review and found “enough to stand your hair on end”.”There were security holes all over it,” she says, “from the most basic display of the ballot on the screen all the way through the operating system.” Although the programme was designed to be run on the Windows 2000 NT operating system, which has numerous safeguards to keep out intruders, Ms Jekot found it worked just fine on the much less secure Windows 98; the 2000 NT security features were, as she put it, “nullified”.

Also embedded in the software were the comments of the programmers working on it. One described what he and his colleagues had just done as “a gross hack”. Elsewhere was the remark: “This doesn’t really work.” “Not a confidence builder, would you say?” Ms Jekot says. “They were operating in panic mode, cobbling together something that would work for the moment, knowing that at some point they would have to go back to figure out how to make it work more permanently.” She found some of the code downright suspect – for example, an overtly meaningless instruction to divide the number of write-in votes by 1. “From a logical standpoint there is absolutely no reason to do that,” she says. “It raises an immediate red flag.”

And even this is not the worst news:

Most suspect of all was the governor’s race in Alabama, where the incumbent Democrat, Don Siegelman, was initially declared the winner. Sometime after midnight, when polling station observers and most staff had gone home, the probate judge responsible for elections in rural Baldwin County suddenly “discovered” that Mr Siegelman had been awarded 7,000 votes too many. In a tight election, the change was enough to hand victory to his Republican challenger, Bob Riley. County officials talked vaguely of a computer tabulation error, or a lightning strike messing up the machines, but the real reason was never ascertained because the state’s Republican attorney general refused to authorise a recount or any independent ballot inspection.According to an analysis by James Gundlach, a sociology professor at Auburn University in Alabama, the result in Baldwin County was full of wild deviations from the statistical norms established both by this and preceding elections. And he adds: “There is simply no way that electronic vote counting can produce two sets of results without someone using computer programmes in ways that were not intended. In other words, the fact that two sets of results were reported is sufficient evidence in and of itself that the vote tabulation process was compromised.”

Could this be deliberate vote manipulation? The Independent explains the concern this way:

If much of the worry about vote-tampering is directed at the Republicans, it is largely because the big three touchscreen companies are all big Republican donors, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into party coffers in the past few years. The ownership issue is, of course, compounded by the lack of transparency. Or, as Dr Mercuri puts it: “If the machines were independently verifiable, who would give a crap who owns them?” As it is, fears that US democracy is being hijacked by corporate interests are being fuelled by links between the big three and broader business interests, as well as extremist organisations. Two of the early backers of American Information Systems, a company later merged into ES&S, are also prominent supporters of the Chalcedon Foundation, an organisation that espouses theocratic governance according to a literal reading of the Bible and advocates capital punishment for blasphemy and homosexuality.The chief executive of American Information Systems in the early Nineties was Chuck Hagel, who went on to run for elective office and became the first Republican in 24 years to be elected to the Senate from Nebraska, cheered on by the Omaha World-Herald newspaper which also happens to be a big investor in ES&S. In yet another clamorous conflict of interest, 80 per cent of Mr Hagel’s winning votes – both in 1996 and again in 2002 – were counted, under the usual terms of confidentiality, by his own company. (emphasis added)

Whether or not fraud was deliberately perpetrated in any of these examples is almost beside the point. What’s important is that the electronic voting system is so insecure it practically issues an open invitation to abuse by anybody with a stake in the outcome and a knowledge of computer code, but most especially by the companies who control them to the exclusion of any public oversight through the use of these so-called “trade secrecy” agreements. Ms Jekot put it this way:

“Corporate America is very close to running this country. The only thing that is stopping them from taking total control are the pesky voters. That’s why there’s such a drive to control the vote. What we’re seeing is the corporatisation of the last shred of democracy.”I feel that unless we stop it here and stop it now,” she says, “my kids won’t grow up to have a right to vote at all.”

She’s wrong about that: they’ll maintain the right, it just may not mean anything if corporations control the outcome–and there is no way to have an independent check of the results.

Go to both sites and read it all for yourself if you value your citizenship and the democracy that gives it to you. Otherwise, there’s a chance you will lose both.