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Fixed or Murky?
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 computerized systems. In the United States, people worried about electoral fraud are becoming more vocalwith 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 U.S. to adopt computerized voting systems by January 2006.
But the record of the leading companies supplying computerized electoral systems in the United States is questionable. Companies like Diebold, ES&S, and Sequoia who have over 80 percent of the market for automated voting systems in the U.S.have all been criticized for having problems with their machines. Apart from software and machinery malfunctions, computerized databases of voters also cause problems, as when the Choicepoint data systems company subsidiary, DBT, incorrectly purg- ed over 90,000 registered voters from Florida electoral lists in the 2000 presidential elections. Additionally, the use of modems leaves the way open for data to be tampered with.
Three main points of view prevail on these issues. Proponents of computerized voting systems argue the need to modernize so as to facilitate voting and draw more people into the electoral process. Other advocates, such as Public Citizens 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.
Critics disagree strongly. Rebecca Mercuri, a computer science professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, has researched computerized 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. 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 subvertable servers. Proposals to vote from automated teller machines are...basically undesirable.
Proponents of computerized voting systemsoften owned by large transnational businessesargue 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. 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.
Trouble free? Heres 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. So the Venezuelan elections scheduled for May 28 that year were cancelled. In November 1998, faulty ES&S voting machines used in Hawaii on election day led to Hawaiis first ever statewide election review and a first in the history of the United States.
The practical problems with electronic voting are well documented. Peter Neumanns Risks Forum posts a daunting list of errors and failures. The recent highly publicized case of the Diebold companys electoral software, discovered by chance on an open website, downloaded and tested by computer scientists, confirms that fears with security and use of databases and software passwords are justified.
But apart from the technical aspects, computer voting raises old issues of undue influence and interference in a new guise. In 1999, 22 people were indicted in Louisiana (9 admitted guilt) in a huge bribery scam involving the acquisition of Sequoia voting systems. Sequoia Pacifics Regional Manager and a regional sales executive were indicted for paying around $8 million in bribes to Louisiana Commissioner of Elections Jerry Fowler. Fowler was sentenced to over four years in prison.
In Georgia companies are vying for a $54 million contract to supply 18,000 touch screen voting machines. Among the competing contractors are Diebold Election Systems and Northrop Grumann Diversified Dynamics. Diebolds CEO, Wally ODell, is a major fundraiser for the Ohio Republican Party. (Ohio Democratic leaders are seeking to block Diebolds bid to supply voting machines to the state.) Northrop Grumman Corporation is a major defense 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 districtsall 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.
The case of Senator Chuck Hagel exemplifies concerns about questionable business and political links. In 1996, Hagel won a totally unexpected victory in an election where his own companys computerized voting systems was doing the counting. He was the first Republican in 24 years to make the Senate in Nebraska. In 2002, Hagel ran again and was elected with 83 percent of the vote. 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 com- pany; 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 percent to 44 percent. Mysteriously, his lead evaporated on election day, turning into a 53 percent to 46 percent win for his opponent Saxby Chambliss. In Georgia, Democrat Roy Barnes led Republican Sonny Perdue in the opinion polls by 48 percent to 39 percent. Nonetheless, Perdue won with 52 percent of the vote against Barness 45 percent. In Minnesota, just days before the election, veteran Democrat Walter Mondalea late replacement after the death in a plane crash of leading Democrat Senator Paul Wellstoneled Republican Norm Coleman by 47 percent to 39 percent in opinion polls. But Coleman won, 50 percent to 47 percent. In all these states computerized voting systems were used to count most of the votes. It seems very strange, to say the least, that opinion polls in three states should have goofed so badly.
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 U.S. 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.
The available evidence indicates that the 2004 election could be spectacularly and, in most cases, undetectably rigged using computerized systems supplied and managed by companies linked to the Republican party.
New technologyvulnerable to tamperingwill certainly be put in place under HAVA. The resulting mess will be adjudicated in the courts, if disputed results ever get that far. Four protections are needed to prevent voting manipulations:
effective monitoring of 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 computerized voting systems and voter database systems (not contemplated in HAVA, which empowers Electoral Standards Boards to implement only vague voluntary guidelines); open, non-proprietary verifiable software for all these systems.
A recent report from Johns Hopkins University on computerized voting systems concluded: ...there is little difference in the way code is developed for voting machines relative to other commercial endeavors. 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.
Phil Hughes runs the World- Watch website, which 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 and many applications programs written for Linux are produced under a public license agreement. No one has a monopoly of the basic product information
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 computerized voting market needs, and fast.
Toni Solo is an activist living in Central America.
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