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How Do You Like Your Elections - Fixed and Murky?

by Toni Solo

Dissident Voice

September 16, 2003

 

Like it or not, computer technology will be used for most elections in some way or other before too long. Already, even in impoverished countries like Nicaragua, centralized electoral systems use computers to manage the counting process. Brazil votes using computerised systems. In the United States, people worried about electoral fraud are becoming more vocal - with good reason. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2000, and the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, approved by President Bush in October 2002, will force electoral authorities throughout the US to adopt computerised voting systems by January 2006.

 

But the record of the leading companies supplying computerised electoral systems in the United States is questionable. Companies like Diebold, ES&S, and Sequoia - who have over 80% of the market for automated voting systems in the US - have all been criticised as a result of problems associated with their machines. Apart from software and machinery malfunctions, computerised databases of voters also cause problems. The Choicepoint data systems company subsidiary DBT was responsible for incorrectly purging over 90,000 registered voters from Florida electoral lists in the 2000 presidential elections. [1] Additionally, the use of modems leaves the way open for data flowing through these systems to be tampered with by anyone with the necessary hardware and know how.

 

Three main points of view prevail on these issues. Proponents of computerised voting systems argue the need to modernise so as to facilitate voting and draw more people into the electoral process. Other advocates such as Public Citizen's Congress Watch say of HAVA, "In many ways, the new law marks a significant step forward in improving the conduct of elections in the United States. At the same time, however, the compromise sacrificed some additional steps that should have been taken to ensure that every vote counts and contains some of the ballot security measures that are not useful to the democratic process." [2]

 

Critics disagree strongly. Rebecca Mercuri, a computer science professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania has researched computerised voting for over a decade. She asserts, "Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated. Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system." [3] Mercuri and other critics point out that electronic balloting systems without individual print-outs for examination by the voters, do not provide an independent audit trail. They also question the lack of certification to international computer security standards of electronic voting systems. Another main concern with these systems is the shift of control away from election officials to computer personnel.

 

Peter G. Neumann of Risks Forum, who monitors problems with computer technology, writes, "We have reported election problems in Software Engineering Notes and RISKS for many years..... We note that punched-card systems are inherently flaky, and that even optical scanning is problematic, but that direct-recording electronic systems tend to be subject to serious potentials for fraud and manipulation. Internet voting is a disaster waiting to happen in light of the inadequate security of the Internet, personal computer systems, and subvertible servers. Proposals to vote from automated teller machines are also problematic, and basically undesirable." [4]

 

Proponents of computerised voting systems - often owned by large transnational businesses - argue that security is good and machines conform to government standards. For example the ES&S company web site states,"ES&S products are tested by an independent testing authority, certified to meet or exceed the standards of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, and have been proven and validated through use in thousands of actual elections worldwide." [5] Peter Neumann responds to these assertions, "The Federal Election Commission standards that are in general use appear to be those from the 1990s. The review process that was used for the REVISED 2002 standards was seriously flawed, and many of the review comments were ignored almost completely. As a result, the newly approved revised standards are fundamentally inadequate."

 

To adjudicate these competing claims a look at real world experience may help. In August 2002 the results of at least 18 suburban Dallas County elections were delayed through vote-counting problems using ES&S software. The Dallas Morning News report on the glitch referred to "Election Systems & Software, the company that sold the previously trouble-free equipment to the county four years ago". [6] Trouble free?

 

Here's what the Venezuelan national electoral authority had to say about ES&S in May 2000. "We say ES&S has not been sufficiently efficient in testing what it was supposed to have supplied... the National Electoral Council cannot accept such a failure of responsibility by this North American company." [7] So the Venezuelan elections scheduled for May 28th that year were cancelled. Back in November 1998 faulty ES&S voting machines used in Hawaii on election day "led to Hawaii's first ever statewide election review and a first in the history of the United States." [8]

 

The practical problems with electronic voting are well documented. Peter Neumann's Risks Forum posts a daunting list of errors and failures. The recent highly publicised case of the Diebold company's electoral software, discovered by chance on an open web site, downloaded and tested by computer scientists, confirms that fears to do with security, use of databases and software passwords are all too justified. [9]

 

But apart from the technical aspects, computer voting raises old issues of undue influence and interference in a new guise. Who owns these computerised electoral systems companies? What are their sympathies and connections? The answers to these questions are not comforting. Big money and shady business-political connections threaten the integrity of computerised voting systems procurement.

 

In 1999, 22 people were indicted in Louisiana and 9 admitted guilt in a huge bribery scam involving the acquisition of Sequoia voting systems. Sequoia Pacific's Regional Manager and a regional sales executive were indicted for paying around $8 million in bribes to Louisiana Commissioner of Elections Jerry Fowler. In all, 22 people were indicted. Nine pleaded guilty. Fowler was sentenced to over 4 years in prison.

 

In the US state of Georgia companies are vying for a US$54 million contract to supply 18,000 touch screen voting machines. [10] Among the competing contractors are Diebold Election Systems and Northrop Grumann Diversified Dynamics. Diebold's CEO, Wally O'Dell, is a major fundraiser for the Ohio republican party. (Ohio Democrat leaders are seeking to block Diebold's bid to supply voting machines to the state.) Northrop Grumman Corporation are a major defence contractor with links to the Carlyle business group, a nest of eminent Republicans, including former President George Bush.

 

The involvement of big business in the management of electoral databases and computing of votes is inherently and profoundly undemocratic. Politicians have come to see manipulation of the vote much as they see gerrymandering boundaries of voting districts - all part of the electoral game. For many people disenchanted with politics and politicians, the system has long been not one person-one vote but one dollar-one vote. There is a growing sense that the ruling plutocracy seem to find elections a pesky irritating ritual and fixing them a necessary and legitimate route to power.

 

The case of Senator Chuck Hagel exemplifies concerns in the context of questionable business and political links. In 1996 Hagel won a totally unexpected victory in an election his own company's computerised voting systems were counting. He was the first Republican in 24 years to make the Senate in Nebraska. [11] In 2002, Hagel ran again and was elected with 83% of the vote - a feat worthy of dictators like Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua or Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti in their prime. Thom Hartmann observes "80 percent of those votes were counted by computer-controlled voting machines put in place by the company affiliated with Hagel: built by that company; programmed by that company; chips supplied by that company."

 

Against the trend results swung the Senate for the Republicans in the 2002 elections. In Georgia popular Democrat Max Cleland was leading the pre-election polls 49% to 44%. Mysteriously, his lead evaporated on election day turning into a 53% to 46% win for his opponent Saxby Chambliss. In Georgia, Democrat Roy Barnes led Republican Sonny Perdue in the opinion polls by 48% to 39%. Nonetheless, Perdue won with 52% of the vote against Barnes 45%. In Minnesota, just days before the election, veteran Democrat Walter Mondale - a late replacement after the death in a plane crash of leading Democrat Senator Paul Wellstone - led Republican Norm Coleman by 47% to 39% in opinion polls. But Coleman won, 50% to 47%. In all these states computerised voting systems were used to count most of the vote. It seems very strange, to say the least, that opinion polls in three states should have goofed so badly.

 

The available evidence indicates that the worst case may well be true and that the 2004 election will be spectacularly and in most cases undetectably rigged using computerised systems supplied and managed by companies linked to the Republican party. [12] Foreign involvement in those companies is another issue. Sequoia is owned by De La Rue, the British security systems transnational with a minority shareholding by the Dublin based Jefferson Smurfit Group, another transnational company. A contract to record the votes of the US military has been awarded to Accenture, a Bermuda based company formerly part of the Andersen auditing group, so thoroughly discredited during the Enron collapse. These transnationals work comfortably with the business interests currently running the White House.

 

George Bush and his advisers have almost certainly already put in place their plans to fix the 2004 election. It will mean extending to other States the same chaos that prevailed in Florida in 2000. Voting lists will be "consolidated". New technology - vulnerable to tampering - will be put in place under HAVA. The resulting mess will be adjudicated in the courts - if disputed results ever get that far. No one needs reminding the last time that happened, back in 2000 when George Bush was appointed President by a Supreme Court divided on party political lines. Imagine that, but multiplied by the number of States the Republicans will need to steal next time around after four years of domestic economic, environmental and foreign policy catastrophes.

 

Four protections are needed to prevent a wider repeat of the Florida voting manipulation fiascos of 2000 and 2002. Effective monitoring of voter databases to prevent purging of legitimate voters. A physical audit trail so

people can be sure not only that their vote is registered correctly but that someone can verify it. Strong, legally enforceable statutory standards for all computerised voting systems and voter database systems (not contemplated in HAVA which empowers Electoral Standards Boards to implement only vague "voluntary guidelines"). And finally, open, non-proprietary verifiable software for all these systems.

 

A recent report from John Hopkins University on computerised voting systems concluded: "...there is little difference in the way code is developed for voting machines relative to other commercial endeavours. In fact, we believe that an open process would result in more careful development as more scientists, software engineers, political activists and others who value their democracy would be paying attention to the quality of the software used for their elections....such open design processes have proven very useful in projects ranging from very focused efforts...through very large and complex systems such as maintaining the Linux operating system." [13]

 

Phil Hughes runs the WorldWatch web site [14] that addresses social, political and economic aspects of Linux and non-proprietary open-source software. He explains, "Linux is a free and open operating system standard developed by people all around the world. Linux itself and many applications programs written for Linux are produced under a public license agreement. No one has a monopoly of the basic product information.

 

The goal of electoral software is clear: namely to accurately collect and report information. There's nothing secret about the task itself (as opposed to the confidentiality of the information collected) so there's no reason to use a system that depends upon or requires secrecy about how it works. Making the implementation of electoral software open means that the integrity of the software can be freely reviewed by any interested party.

 

The cost of the system software will be lower because the software is free, with all the benefits of Linux innate reliability. Also if we are using this open development approach then even the already very low cost of development can be shared by all of the jurisdictions that will be using the software.

 

It would take about six months to develop viable free open source electoral software in Linux. Obviously it would require testing. But much existing commercially developed electoral software is still showing problems despite many years of use. Linux will certainly do better and be more reliable because it is open source, available to everyone."

 

Free, open to everyone? Sounds just like what the computerised voting market needs. And fast.

 

Toni Solo is an activist based in Central America. Contact; tonisolo52@yahoo.com.

 

Other Articles by Toni Solo

 

* Colombia: The War on Terror as Waged by Outlaws: Interview with Caitriona Ruane
* Terrorists, Their Friends and the Bogota 3

* Neo-liberal Nicaragua: Neo Banana Republic

 

Notes

 

1. Greg Palast, November 2nd 2002, "The re-election of Jim Crow: How Jeb Bush's team is trying to steal Florida again."

 

2. Public Citizen Congress Watch web site, 13th September 2003

 

3. "Rebecca Mercuri's Statement on Electronic Voting" 2001 by Rebecca Mercuri. See www.notablesoftware.com

 

4. "Risks cases as of 22 August 2003, Peter G. Neumann, SRI International EL243, Menlo Park CA 94025-3493. www.CSL.sri.com/neumann

 

5. ESS web site 11th September 2003

 

6. August 5th 2002, Ed Housewright, The Dallas Morning News.

 

7. Press release. May 25th 2000, Venezuelan Tribunal Supremo de Justicia web site.

 

8. "Ghosts in the Machines: The Business of Counting Votes", Jason Leopold, COUNTERPUNCH September 2, 2003.

 

9.Bev Harris, "Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering In The 21st Century," www.blackboxvoting.com

 

10. April 22nd 2002 "Voting Machine Firms Enlist Lobbyists" by John McCosh, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer. www.ajc.com

 

11. 'The theft of your vote is just a chip away', Thom Hartmann, July 31st 2003, www.smirkingchimp.org

 

12."The 2004 Election Has Already Been Rigged", by Schuyler Ebbets, September 2nd 2003, www.thepeoplesvoice.org

 

13. "Analysis of an Electronic Voting System" Kohno, Stubblefield, Rubin, Wallach, July 23rd 2003. John Hopkins University.

 

14. Visit www.Worldwatch.linuxgazette.com

 

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