Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We need more safeguards at the ballot box.
Alter: Can We Trust the Vote Counting?
We need more safeguards at the ballot box.
By Jonathan Alter

Nov. 7, 2006 - As voters go to the polls today, half of them will be casting ballots that are not secure and not protected against potential fraud. Only 12 states have either older, reliable machines or electronic voting systems with the two necessary safeguards: a paper trail and an auditing program to find out if the paper trail matches what’s been recorded on the computers. The other 38 states will probably manage OK, but they are playing roulette with American democracy.

Nowadays you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe there’s something horribly wrong with the way we count votes. Maybe the new Congress will finally move toward fixing the problem. So far, such efforts have been “a travesty” and “a charade.” Those aren’t my words. They belong to the Rev. DeForest Soaries, who resigned last year as chairman of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (set up after the 2000 Florida debacle) because he believes neither the White House nor Congress is serious about this problem.

The reports on the vulnerability of Diebold Election Systems and similar companies that make the ballot machines are piling up, from Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Berkeley and computer scientists at other reputable institutions. (Diebold acknowledges that there are occasional glitches but insists that no election involving their equipment has ever been compromised). “We urge election officials to be prepared,” says Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice, which has issued stinging critiques of the readiness of many electronic voting systems. The danger is not just the glitches (partly due to inexperienced and poorly trained polling place officials) and other voting irregularities we’ll hear about today and in the weeks ahead. The truly scary part is what we won’t hear about—computer viruses and bugs that cannot be traced. The film “Hacking Democracy” now running on HBO is one-sided, but it shows in eye-popping visual terms how easy it is to hack into the system.

And now we learn that the problem goes even deeper than technical problems on Election Day. A story out of Maryland suggests what happens when the same officials who evaluate the electronic voting systems have a vested interest in the systems they purchased. It’s another example of the lack of accountability we’ve seen so vividly in other realms.

In 2003, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, responded to critiques of electronic voting by commissioning an outside consulting firm to investigate the Diebold system purchased for the state. This week it became clear that more than 80 percent of that so-called “independent” report was censored. The excuse was “security;” the real reason was old-fashioned CYA. Over and over, critical assessments contained in the report were sanitized to make Diebold look better.

Over the weekend, a freelance journalist, Rebecca Abrahams, posted a leak of the original full report at, a site that chronicles news of electronic voting, sometimes feverish and exaggerated and other times terrifyingly true. Abrahams compares the 193-page original 2003 report, prepared by the respected Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and the 38-page redacted version put out by Maryland officials three years ago. Most of what’s in the original report is now old news about the vulnerabilities of the Diebold system. What’s important is the lengths to which the State Board of Elections in Maryland has gone to keep problems with its system out of public view.

When the state’s secretary of budget and management, Cecelia Januszkiewicz, a Republican appointee, urged that the whole report be released, the elections administrator, Democrat Linda Lamone, refused. Who was she protecting? The answer isn’t hard to figure out. She was protecting her decision to spend millions on Diebold equipment that was vulnerable. Lamone says many safety precautions have now been added, and she denies the system is flawed. But Governor Ehrlich has advised Marylanders to vote by absentee ballot instead of taking a chance on the Diebold machines.

When I confronted Lamone with evidence of the shockingly unwarranted redactions, she tried to duck blame, and she has continued to extol the virtues of Diebold to her counterparts around the country. Lamone told me, “I seriously doubt if they [Diebold] had much say in what was released.” And I seriously doubt Lamone on this point.

The way Maryland state officials have been covering for Diebold rankles the community of computer experts that has grown up around this issue. “It’s disgusting, and I can’t believe they got away with it this long,” says Johns Hopkins computer-science professor Aviel D. Rubin, whose exposure of the vulnerability of the electronic systems in 2002 and 2003 helped kick off the controversy. Rubin, author of “Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting,” says that the “security” excuse for not releasing detailed reports about electronic voting to the public is especially lame: “If they thought the system was not secure enough to survive the release of a report identifying vulnerabilities, then they shouldn’t have been using the system at all.”

The basic problem is that elections in the United States are shrouded in corporate secrecy. Vendors like Diebold and Sequoia (whose machines in Oakland, Calif., were found last week to contain a button at the back that, when pushed, simply added votes) have succeeded in selling the idea that their code is proprietary. It shouldn’t be. Congress needs to pass legislation that establishes full transparency in voting equipment. The software of these companies isn’t Coca-Cola’s secret formula and shouldn’t be treated as such. It makes no sense that even election officials are not allowed to know the details of how their systems work.

Will potential problems with Diebold in Maryland affect the closely contested Ben Cardin-Michael Steele race for the U.S. Senate? No way to predict that one. But there was one positive development last week: an American electronic-election-equipment company was found to have ties to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is loathed in Washington. That means that national Republicans might now have more of a motive to join with Democrats like Rep. Rush Holt to clean up the system before Chavez can start intervening in our elections.

In the meantime, several counties around the United States have recently converted their systems to the only method of voting that takes place slowly enough and with enough transparency to assure an accurate outcome: snail mail. Vote-by-mail in Oregon over the last several elections has sent turnout soaring without incident. It should be tried elsewhere. This system means the end of the civic sacrament of gathering with neighbors at the polls, but how worthwhile is such a ritual if we cannot fully trust the outcome?