James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, February 27, 2004

Wiring the coming elections

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a short piece predicting that we will see voting fraud in Florida again this year – probably even worse than last time – and that similar crimes almost certainly will take place in other states, notably in the South. I stand by that prediction.

After the 2000 election, and the blatant screwing with the vote count, blocking of Democratic voters from polls and the like, Congress voted almost $4 billion to support something called the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), to make voting more honest by installing high-tech voting machines where they were “most needed.”

Well guess what? Many experts and organizations have come separately to the conclusion that the touch-screen machines now being installed in various places, notably in the South and West, with the aid of our tax dollars will make it easier to rig elections. A cynic might suggest it’s no wonder that the Bush White House backed the plan for wider distribution of the new machines.

A handful of companies build and own the machines. The major players in the field are Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Election Systems and Election Systems and Software (ES&S).

ES&S and Diebold, the two biggest manufacturers, openly have ties to the Republican party, and Diebold’s associations are so egregious that the company should be barred from the election business – though of course it won’t be.

Walden O’Dell, Diebold board chairman, is one of the Bush crowd’s most ardent and successful fund raisers. He's a personal friend of W's who has been a guest at the Texas ranch. He already has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush’s 2004 campaign, and is among the so-called Rangers and Pioneers, honorary titles given to people who come up with $100,000 or $200,000 or more for the campaign. O’Dell also is very active in the Bush campaign in Ohio and was quoted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as saying he is “committed to help Ohio deliver its electoral votes” to Bush this year.

Computer scientists and technicians at MIT, Cal Tech, Rice and Johns Hopkins Universities are among the many who have been warning for months that all of the touch-screen machines are subject to easy hacking and to manipulation by tech-savvy voters and polling-place officials.

True Majority reported recently that one hacker was able to open a locked machine and begin changing votes in less than a minute. Another hacker was able to intercept and change vote totals as they were being sent to election headquarters.

A group of about 1,200 computer scientists and technologists led by Stanford University computer science Prof. David Dill, is campaigning against use of the machines because of their vulnerability to fraud and inaccuracy. Many Silicon Valley scientist and techies are members of the group.

Much of the danger could be eliminated by having the machines provide paper copies of ballots for voters to check to make sure their votes are correctly recorded, and to audit in the event there is reason to suspect inaccuracy or fraud. The technology is simple, and, in fact, a few machines are so equipped.

The manufacturers are dug in against installing that system, however, arguing that it simply is “not necessary” and that voters might foul the smooth operation of the polling place by complaining that the paper ballots don't show their votes correctly. (Hmmmmmm.)

To round out your list of fun possibilities, note that the machines are susceptible to all the other problems of technology, including crashes, viruses and power outages.

Oh, yes: The manufacturers refuse to provide information on their software so that election officials can examine the results of individual machines. In plain language, election officials and the public have to take the word of the companies that the numbers they provide are accurate and honest. There is no way for officials or public watchdogs to check that on most machines.

(Again, yes, you got that right. The companies, including Diebold, or others associated with them, count the votes and no one else can check them.)

No states now require software and hardware access and fewer than a handful now require the printouts. In California, where they have been mandated by the secretary of state, election officials in 20-plus counties refuse to comply, claiming that to follow the order would be too costly or just too much work. I hope someone surveys those counties soon and determines the party affiliations of the noncompliant officials.

A couple of other quick notes:

CBS television news had a brief bit on the controversy a week or two ago. It led the story with comments about “a conspiracy theory,” which, of course, is a much overworked but still successful gambit to get viewers and readers to dismiss what critics are saying. CBS is the network which, through recent decisions regarding movies and advertising it will and will not air, has shown itself to be in the same league as Fox in terms of favoring the Republican agenda.

Some people have raised questions about the results of the New Hampshire primary. In that state, John Kerry beat Howard Dean by 1.6 percent in areas where paper ballots were counted by hand, by 9.7 percent where ES&S machines were used and by 14.7 percent where Diebold machines were used. Some officials and analysts maintain that the areas in which those votes were cast account for the differences. Could be, but we’ll never know.

If fraud does occur, as I’m confident it will, remember that those are your tax dollars at work.