By Dylan A. Tredrea
Following the contentious 2000 presidential election, politicians scrambled to solve the embarrassing national public problem of the outdated voting machines still in use throughout most of the country. Realizing that state and local election officials were under-managed and often under-funded, Congress quickly passed the Helping Americans Vote Act (HAVA), and appropriated $3.9 billion for updating and set minimum standards for voting systems. In a sincere effort to avoid the highly publicized errors made in the state of Florida in 2000, many states invested heavily in electronic ballots systems. The new machines are either D.R.E.’s (direct recording electronic voting machines), optical scanners or, in some experimental cases, internet voting systems that have been used in some primary elections. However, HAVA did not incorporate prior court rulings protecting “trade secrets” in voting machine technology, preventing election officials from inspecting the machines or software. In some cases, even opening the casing of electronic ballot boxes is a third-degree felony.i In addition, the new machines aren’t required to produce an auditable paper trail.
“A handful of scholars have also noted the curious trends in election results, favoring conservatives, in the handful of states with widespread use of electronic ballot systems.”
Since the incorporation of D.R.E.’s reams of information have surfaced regarding the connection of manufacturers and the Republican Party. A handful of scholars have also noted the curious trends in election results, favoring conservatives, in the handful of states with widespread use of electronic ballot systems. Responding to these concerns, 1,600 professional technologists have signed the Resolution on Electronic Voting drawn up by Stanford professor David Dill on his Web site, verifiedvoting.org.ii Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ) has also proposed a bill, H.R. 2239, requiring an auditable paper trail for all elections and equipment transparency but it has received only mild bi-partisan support and it is unlikely to affect the November election. Lacking responsible election administration that H.R. 2239 would in part achieve, it is clear that the system currently being developed and quickly becoming the status quo will bring into question the security and accuracy of the most basic process of democracy.
Cases of Concern
Electronic ballot systems were in use prior the 2000 Presidential election, and prompted a lot of the questions and concerns that are being brought up today. The experiences of two states, Nebraska and Georgia, offer telling examples. In 1996, Chuck Hagel won a surprising pair of upsets in Nebraska’s primary and senatorial elections. He was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Nebraska in twenty four years. Even more surprising was his support from every major demographic group in the state including Nebraska’s core Democrats: the black population, which has never voted Republican in modern times.
Besides the apparently amazing innate political skill of Mr. Hagel, the election is of note because Hagel ran American Information Systems in the early 90’s a company that manufactures electronic ballot boxes. In fact, 80% of the votes tallied in the election he won were on AIS machines. Hagel maintained (through a holding company) an indirect $1 million investment in the company and his campaign finance chair was one of AIS’s principal investors. In a surprising landslide, the “entrenched” Hagel was re-elected in 2002. His challenger questioned the victory and called for a recount, but it wasn’t possible. The AIS (now Election Systems and Software (ES&S)) machines used didn’t create an auditable paper trail. Not only was there nothing left to count, but the state’s contract with ES&S actually forbids examining the software running the ballot machines. In the end, Hagel’s former company was able to effectively manage and certify the election that put placed him into the most exclusive millionaires club in the country.iii
The Republican Party had a good year in 2002 and coincidentally it followed the path of those states that invested heavily in electronic voting systems. Georgia, the first state to completely overhaul its system to electronic ballots, purchased $54 million dollars of Diebold (the second largest producer of electronic election equipment), D.R.E. equipment shortly before the 2002 elections. Again there was a surprise defeat of a Democratic incumbent, Senator Max Cleland. The race captured national attention because Cleland’s Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, a pro-Iraq invasion activist who avoided military service in Vietnam, spent much of the campaign accusing Cleland, a Vietnam veteran disabled in combat, of being unpatriotic. Even though election eve polls predicted a Cleland win by between two to six percentage points, Cleland lost the race by seven points. In the last 48 hours of the campaign, Chambliss achieved an upset victory with a positive shift in support of his candidacy of between nine to fifteen points in less than 48 hours. This victory, combined with the earlier Nebraska race, gave Republicans control of the Senate. Cleland was not the only victim of that state’s “compassionate conservative machine.” Polls predicted that Georgia’s Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, would easily beat his Republican rival, Sonny Purdue, by as much as eleven points. He ended up losing that election by five points. Sonny Purdue is the first Republican governor elected in Georgia in 134 years.
History of Electronic Ballots Systems
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study in 2001 estimating that, in the 2000 presidential election, out of the 100 million or so votes cast, between four and six million were lost. Electronic Balloting began as an act of good faith by officials hoping to upgrade the mostly outdating systems still used in the 2000 election, systems that probably should have been retired before Pete Rose. The myriad causes include broken machines, poorly trained volunteers and mistaken denial of access. Florida naturally was the center of the controversy.iv In addition to equipment problems, the state removed some legal voters from the rolls because of mistakenly being identified as felons (who don’t have the right to vote in the state), while some counties mistakenly allowed actual felons to vote.v The MIT report focused on Florida, but mentioned a number of other states where similar problems had been reported.vi
All of these events led to the passage of HAVA, which was considered by most observers to be long overdue. The $3.9 billion appropriation was earmarked for improving the election system nationwide, and for the development of national standards for states’ voting systems. In spite of identified problems D.R.E.’s were understandably a hot item. If successful and secure electronic ballot systems could be developed, a huge chunk of the problems faced in 2000 would disappear. With an electronic system, counties wouldn’t have to print hundreds of different ballots for different federal districts. Dozens of different languages would be available at the touch of a button. Proponents also contend widespread use of D.R.E.’s would result in faster results and increase turnout (especially if votes could be cast via the internet). Unfortunately, this ideal scenario has yet to be realized. States are finding mixed results on just getting the systems to work, much less be secure. Florida Governor Jeb Bush was forced to call a state of emergency extending the voting session during the 2001 gubernatorial elections an extra two hours because of problems booting up the systems.
Studying electronic voting machines and the software they run is difficult, because the “trade secrets” of these complex machines are protected. A few months after Georgia’s surprise elections using Diebold’s systems, critics were able to obtain copies of the software the machines used and forwarded them to software analysts. One analyst, Roxanne Jekot, declared the software to be full of security holes. The programming was dotted with “embedded comments” written by programmers saying things like, “This doesn’t really work” and “Not a confidence builder.” Jekot also found commands that she believed displayed how easily code can be created to divide or multiply the votes for specific candidates.vii Additionally, Johns Hopkins analysts found “several high risks of vulnerabilities,”viii and even believed it was possible to compromise the system remotely.ix Despite the release of the Johns Hopkins study, the state of Maryland decided to purchase $55 million of Diebold equipment. The state hired its own group of analysts who found “328 software flaws, including 26 which they deemed as putting the election “‘at risk of compromise.'” The analysts were easily able to hack into the system, both at polling sites and remotely, and change the vote counts in both directions. This came as no surprise to Doug Jones, a nationally regarded expert in computer security at the University of Iowa, who realized that he informed Diebold about the same gaps six years earlier.
Electronic voting has had positive results in some isolated cases. Reviewing the result of the 2001 gubernatorial election in Virginia (in districts where electronic voting methods were used) the Century Foundation found the “lost vote” rate had dropped from 600-700 in 2000 only a single vote in 2001.x After the failure of the gubernatorial race in Florida, officials were determined to prevent a third disaster. They worked hard before the midterm elections to increase training and the number of county workers in order to help troubleshoot the machines. Two of the counties that had previously experienced the biggest problems, Miami-Dade and Broward, arranged locations to vote early and more than 100,000 people in each county took advantage. According to Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, the electronic machines worked “boringly smooth.” Rob Morse, writing for Law Technology, believes these stories demonstrate that electronic voting definitely works as a system. The challenge is only paring the voters and the poll workers “to adjust.”xi
Quality control issues will mostly likely fade in time, though doubtfully not likely before the 2004 election. Better companies with better products will become known and will eventually dominate the market. This process has already started, VoteHere Inc. has developed security software it claims can audit votes cast electronically and spot machine tampering and problems.
“The analysts were easily able to hack into the system, both at polling sites and remotely, and change the vote counts in both directions.”
The company has posted its code online for public review hoping that this will aid in discovering software flaws before the program is put to use. David Dill (founder of verifiedvoting.org) complimented the decision, “I think it’s a good business move, and I think it’s a good thing for building confidence in a new technology…[r]eleasing the software is part of what has to happen. The other part is having increased scrutiny. … I hope that this step will result in careful external review.” Verified Voting is also in favor of a audible paper trail for D.R.E.’s.xii
The free market will solve only half the problem, however. Even if the machines currently on the market could be made to work flawlessly, they still wouldn’t allow for much public accountability. Chuck Hagel’s challenger learned the hard way in 2002 that, “the problem isn’t that the new voting machines are computers.” The problem is that the contracts often give the job of counting the votes not to election officials but to the companies themselves.xiii The machines don’t produce a paper trail that can be legally audited. Lacking a paper trail, it is impossible ensure elections are safe from fraud. In addition, because the courts have decided the software the machines run are the private properties of the companies that developed them, election officials are not permitted to see if any problems exist, whether they are intentional or not, that are compromising the vote count.xiv
The Politics of Businessmen who sell these Equipments
Given the inability to inspect machines and audit election results, the political ties of executives at electronic voting machine manufacturers are troubling. The crowd is full of businessmen with strong financial ties to the Republican Party. In one case a company, Global Election Systems (recently acquired by Diebold) has had a tendency to hire ex-convicts. Ironically, some members of the management of G.E.S. have criminal records that would probably prevent them from voting on their own machines in seven different states. Michael K Graye, a former G.E.S. director, was arrested in 1996 in Canada for tax-fraud and money-laundering schemes that involved $18 million. Before he could be sentenced though, he was indicted in the US for stock fraud. G.E.S. also hired Jeffrey Dean as a senior VP after he finished serving time for 23 felony embezzlement counts. Court documents describe these offenses as having, “a high degree of sophistication and planning in the use and alteration of records in the computerized accounting system that the defendant maintained for the victim.” After Diebold acquired G.E.S., a prison friend of Dean, John Elder, was hired as a consultant. They had met while Elder was serving five years for cocaine trafficking at the same time that Dean was incarcerated. Although their direct involvement in actual elections is unclear, Diebold claims Dean spent most of his time supervising ballot printing, the fact remains that the choice of a company writing software and building computer systems that count votes to hire a senior VP with a history of manipulating computer systems is certainly questionable.
Vanity Fair reported that out of the top four vendors of election equipment, three have ties to wealthy Republicans.xv The CEO of Diebold, Wally O’Neil, and Director W.H. Timken are both members of President Bush’s inner circle, serving on his “Pioneers” fundraising group. According to the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer O’Neil remarked that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year.” This comment was received poorly by Democrats, particularly because his company is currently bidding on a contract to manage Ohio’s elections infrastructure.xvi
The Pending Solutions
Overall, the administration and security of elections is the problem not party allegiance of business executives. Executives, like all individuals, are permitted to have their political ties and can’t be restricted from giving legally earned money to the party and candidate of their choice. The trend is troubling, though, when coupled with the poor security and oversight of the electronic voting systems in current use. Systems and safeguards must be standardized to prevent corruption and allow for public review. Individuals can only be minimally restricted from political involvement, but election systems can be designed to prevent anyone with a financial stake in one party from ensuring that their investment pays off. Federal involvement will not solve every problem, but it can ensure that if all fails on Election Day officials can fall back on the old fashioned system of counting paper. Lacking that safeguard, recounts are impossible. It is critical to realize that there are no other checks in the system to ensure legitimate elections.
The path to troublesome electronic ballots is, “a story of good intentions gone awry.”xvii Despite the efforts of local, state and federal officials, published reports continue to describe the immature technology and poor security of touch-screen voting machines. On November 2nd, 2004 nearly every state in the union will be counting, some if not all, votes with electronic ballot boxes. A possible solution is The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003, H.R. 2239. This bill would give every voter a paper receipt of his/her vote, allowing anyone the opportunity to check to be sure it reflects their intent, and then the receipt is placed in a lockbox. 106 Democrats but only 8 Republicans have signed on to support the bill. Congressman Holt has yet to get the bill out of the Committee on House Administration though. This delay is a difficulty that the chairman, Congressmen Robert Ney, (R- Ohio) has yet to explain. Of course, Ohio is the home state of Diebold, the second largest manufacturer of electronic ballot equipment. California has taken a step ahead and will require paper ballots in 2006, although why not in 2004 hasn’t been made clear though. xviii
About the Author
Dylan is a senior majoring in Political Science and Russian. He is originally from New Jersey and hopes to spend the spring semester abroad. He wants to work someday as a political consultant and wrote his article in consideration of issues he will most likely face in this career within the next decade.
i Boivie, Ilana. “A brave new world of voting” The Humanist 64:2 (March/April 2004) 32-33
ii Shnayerson, Michael. “Hack the Vote” Vanity Fair 524 (April 2004) 179
iii Niman, Michael. “A brave new world of voting II” The Humanist 64:1 (Jan/Feb 2004) 10-13
iv Morse, Rob. “Electronic voting: Progress over setbacks” Law Technology (Fourth Quarter 2002) 1-6
v Goodnough, Abby. “Fighting for Florida: Disenfranchised Florida Felons Struggle to Regain Their Rights.” New York Times March 28, 2004 (online)
vi Morse, Rob. “Electronic voting: Progress over setbacks” Law Technology (Fourth Quarter 2002) 1-6
vii Niman, Michael. “A brave new world of voting II” The Humanist 64:1 (Jan/Feb 2004) 10-13
viii Shnayerson, Michael. “Hack the Vote” Vanity Fair 524 (April 2004) 170
ix Boivie, Ilana. “A brave new world of voting” The Humanist 64:2 (March/April 2004) 32-33
x Morse, Rob. “Electronic voting: Progress over setbacks” Law Technology (Fourth Quarter 2002) 1-6
xi Morse, Rob. “Electronic voting: Progress over setbacks” Law Technology (Fourth Quarter 2002) 1-6
xii Webb, Cynthia L. “E-Voting Revealed.” Washingtonpost.com, Technology Section.
xiii Boivie, Ilana. “A brave new world of voting” The Humanist 64:2 (March/April 2004) 32-33
xiv Niman, Michael. “A brave new world of voting II” The Humanist 64:1 (Jan/Feb 2004) 10-13
xv Shnayerson, Michael. “Hack the Vote” Vanity Fair 524 (April 2004) 158
xvi Niman, Michael. “A brave new world of voting II” The Humanist 64:1 (Jan/Feb 2004) 10-13
xvii Shnayerson, Michael. “Hack the Vote” Vanity Fair 524 (April 2004) 158
xviii Shnayerson, Michael. “Hack the Vote” Vanity Fair 524 (April 2004) 179