Worse Than Hanging Chads
November 2006 Issue
Call me paranoid, but I’ve never trusted any of the touch-screen machines I’ve voted on in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Go ahead and laugh, but I had more faith in the punch card ballot I poked, hard, in November 2000, especially the chad corresponding to the guy we elected President, Al Gore. Gore still gets chuckles from that gag: “I would like to thank you for helping me carry the state of Florida,” he cracked last March to a small crowd at a Miami Beach cocktail party while raising money for U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s reelection race. Nelson’s Republican challenger is none other than U.S. Representative Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who, in spite of more recent misdeeds, is still remembered for the improper deletion of 57,000 people’s names from voter registration lists in 2000. She, along with Governor Jeb Bush and the GOP-led legislature, spent tens of millions of dollars in 2001 and 2002 to inundate us with touch-screen voting machines.
Florida’s political swamp may again turn the peninsula into an election year comedy. But since 2004, other states have become the butt of jokes. They computerized their voting booths in fear of becoming the next Florida, even though computers do all kinds of unexpected, crazy things.
Ohio, where Bush beat Kerry by 118,601 votes amid accusations of suppression of voter turnout and tampering of ballots, remains the leading target of ridicule, in part because of its electronic voting machines. After passage of the federal Help America Vote Act in 2002 (HAVA), the Ohio government hatched a plan to spend $136 million to modernize its voting systems across the state. One of HAVA’s intents was to ensure that counties had machines that could accommodate blind, paralyzed, and other physically challenged voters.
To boost voter confidence, the Ohio legislature passed a law in May 2004 requiring that counties could use touch-screen machines only if they produced a “voter-verified paper audit trail.” But the politics surrounding Ohio’s acquisition of touch-screen machines are enough to make anyone suspicious. In August 2003, Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell sent out a letter inviting wealthy Ohioans to a fundraising dinner for President Bush’s reelection campaign, saying he was committed to helping deliver the state’s electoral votes to the President in 2004. The next day, Ohio’s Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, was due to announce the approval of Diebold voting machines for purchase by Ohio’s counties. Democratic lawyers protested, saying the apparent conflict of interest could undermine voter confidence, diminishing turnout and marring the election. Diebold then released a statement saying O’Dell regretted the letter and would curb his political activities. He resigned from Diebold last December.
But outrage in Ohio over the November 2004 election centered on more traditional irregularities than computer troubles. A Democratic Party study found that more than one-fourth of the people who voted, or tried to, reported problems. Most complained about long lines, and “significant minorities of voters” experienced trouble with provisional ballots, registration status, unlawful identification checks, and other “voter intimidation tactics.” Allegations of ballot and optical scanner tampering bubbled up, overshadowing concerns about paperless touch-screen glitches. One touch-screen machine received good coverage, though, when The New York Times reported that it produced about 4,000 votes for Bush in a suburban Columbus precinct with just 800 registered voters.
By January 2005, Blackwell, now a Republican gubernatorial candidate, was favoring implementation of paper ballots and optical scanners statewide. But three months later, he announced a deal with Ohio-based Diebold that would offer counties a great price for the latest Diebold AccuVote touch-screens. The Columbus Dispatch reported that the director of a county board of elections accused a former Diebold contractor of funneling $50,000 to Blackwell’s “political interests,” which Blackwell denied. The newspaper revealed that the secretary of state had bought 178 shares of Diebold stock while negotiating with the company. Blackwell claimed he was unaware of the purchase, blamed his financial manager, sold the shares, and lost a couple grand.
Blackwell slid through the state’s gubernatorial primary this past May, but the Diebold AccuVote TS, equipped with a printer resembling one used for cash registers, did not. In the Cleveland area, a Cuyahoga County commission had decided to let systems engineers and computer experts from the Election Science Institute, a California nonprofit, examine the performance of Diebold’s new touch-screen printers during voting. They monitored 467 of the 5,407 touch-screen machines used in the primary. About 10 percent of vote printouts were “either destroyed, blank, illegible, missing, taped together, or otherwise compromised,” the report said. They found that 74 percent of the polling places had at least one discrepancy between a machine’s printout and the electronic memory card. Voters in Franklin County (the Columbus vicinity) witnessed printer errors and other computer malfunctions, and reported seeing their screens switch votes from one candidate to another.
Pennsylvania, one of fifteen states that don’t have paper trail laws, also has problems. A paperless Unilect Patriot system failed to count 10,000 votes in three counties during the 2004 Presidential election. Programming errors on the Danaher Corporation’s ELECTronic 1242 touch-screen machines resulted in the disappearance of votes in four precincts in Berks County last year. Despite these glitches, election officials deployed new touch-screen machines throughout most of the state early this year, saying they were necessary to satisfy a HAVA deadline for accommodating disabled voters. This past May, 200 of the units deployed in the Philadelphia area either failed to activate or to record write-in votes, preventing some people from voting at all. In Allegheny County, election officials deployed an uncertified ES&S iVotronic model at some precincts, and voter groups questioned whether the “zero print” function on some iVotronics was working, “making it impossible to tell if machines already contained recorded votes prior to the election,” according to a report by Voter Action, a nonprofit that opposes the use of touch-screen machines.
In August, a group of Pennsylvania voters filed a lawsuit against Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortes to halt the use of electronic voting machines that do not create a paper trail. The plaintiffs include J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the NAACP’s Philadelphia branch, and Susanna Staas, a former Chester County Republican committeewoman.
“The very integrity of the election process is at stake here,” Mary Kohart, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and partner at law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, said in a statement. Pennsylvania’s touch-screen machines are subject to tampering and malfunctions and provide “no independent record allowing either voters to verify their own votes or election officials to recount all votes if necessary,” she added. Kohart contends that the fifty-seven counties with touch-screen machines have enough time to organize paper ballots and optical scanners for the November election.
Voter advocacy groups in other touch-screen states have been assembling glitch lists, but many election officials don’t have a clue about the extent of the problems.
“The states and counties aren’t tracking this,” said Holly Jacobson, co-founder of Voter Action, which is involved in the Pennsylvania lawsuit and similar campaigns to eliminate touch-screen voting machines in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New York.
Only a couple of states have avoided the touch-screen morass. New Hampshire, thanks to a 1994 law still on the books, permits voting only on paper ballots. Vermont passed a similar law in 2004.
Several states have pulled the plug on touch-screen voting, or are in the process of doing so. Minnesota is converting to optically scanned paper ballots statewide, but until that happens it will allow touch-screen systems as long as they provide a voter-verified, permanent paper record.
New Mexico, where Bush beat Kerry by a mere 5,988 votes in 2004, enacted a law last year requiring a “voter verifiable and auditable paper trail.” But that wasn’t enough to satisfy a group of voters who had bad experiences with touch-screen machines. These included a computer that failed to record the votes cast by 13,000 Bernalillo County residents in 2002, and two other units whose screens repeatedly lit up the indicator for Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson even though a voter had touched the box for Democratic challenger Richard Romero in 2004. The group sued to keep New Mexico from purchasing more touch-screen machines, and voting rights advocates pressed state officials to scrap touch-screen voting machines altogether. After some initial resistance, Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, eventually got behind the idea and this past March signed a law requiring “use of paper ballots for all voting systems.”
“It’s not a party issue, it’s people wanting their democracy back issue,” declares Voter Action’s Jacobson, whose group spearheaded the New Mexico litigation. “You’re talking about new voters who get there, they’re turned away, the machines fail, their votes switch in front of their eyes. Now how do you think they’re going to feel about voting next time?”
Michigan recently finished purging the small number of touch-screens it had in its election system. In 2002, the legislature directed Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, a Republican, to propose a uniform statewide voting machine system. Her plan called for phasing out all punch-card, mechanical lever, and a small number of touch-screen units a few counties had purchased after 2000. The state’s primary this past August was its first election with optically scanned paper ballot machines in every precinct. “There’s just too many problems at this point with electronic machines,” says Ken Silfven, a spokesman at the secretary of state’s office. Silfven is quick to add that he isn’t “panning” the fifteen states that prefer touch-screen machines without paper trails. “If that works for you, tremendous. I’m certainly not going to sit here and cast stones at Florida,” he avers.
Someone has to hurl something at Florida, though. It kind of undermines your civic pride when, surfing the Internet after voting on one of Miami-Dade County’s paperless touch-screens during the September 5 primary, you find testimony that David Dill, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University, delivered to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, whose motto is “Making Every Vote Count.”
“Perhaps we wouldn’t need voter-verified audit trails if there were some way of establishing that computer systems were trustworthy,” Dill said in Pasadena in July 2005. “Unfortunately, the state of the art does not yet allow this, and may never. . . . An especially hard problem in computer security is how to deal with ‘insider attacks’ by people with privileged access, such as employees of the vendor. Electronic voting is a uniquely hard problem because of the secret ballot. If a voter votes for candidate A and a machine stores an electronic vote for candidate B, while displaying a vote for A, the voter will not know. After the voter walks away from the machine, no one else can know who he or she intended to vote for. All they will see is a vote for candidate B.”
Dill, who is a founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, also testified in Washington, D.C., before the Commission on Federal Election Reform (known as the Baker-Carter Commission), which last year not only concurred with his recommendation for voter-verified paper audit trails but urged passage of a federal law requiring that all electronic voting machines have them. Representative Rush Holt, Democrat from New Jersey, and Senator John Ensign, Republican from Nevada, have introduced bills to do so.
I called Dill for an update, thinking that twelve months later the electronic voting situation must have improved at least a little. “It’s gotten worse because computers have gotten more complicated,” he told me. “They always get more complicated.”
At least some paranoia is warranted in a large, watery peninsula where the secretary of state scuttles tens of thousands of legitimate voters from registration lists, where a Diebold voting machine gives Gore a negative 16,000 votes in a precinct with 585 registered voters, where touch-screen units have lost and switched votes as they have everywhere else. I have no idea whether the paperless unit that beeped like an ATM when I touched it on September 5 accurately recorded my votes. When I got to the last page of the electronic ballot, it did allow me to scroll back through, and it looked like everything was OK.
But David Jefferson, a computer scientist at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a technical adviser to California’s secretary of state, told me an electronic review is “worthless.” “It is nothing but comfortware for voters.”
That’s because, without a paper printout, I have no way of knowing if software bugs or even code manipulation changed my votes, he explains. “There have been uncounted numbers of bugs in voting systems software. But then there is also the darker worry that somebody has introduced deliberate malicious logic in software,” notes Jefferson, whose own state, California, has counties plowing ahead with plans to outfit touch-screens with printers.
Jefferson says that “a deep, lengthy, serious analysis of the code by competent experts” and a voter-verified paper trail are the only ways to protect the electorate from bugs and malicious code. “The general problem is the software is not only invisible to voters, but it’s invisible to election officials,” he says. “Almost no election officials in the United States are qualified, or have qualified people on their staffs even, to understand or study that software. And even if they did the software’s not available to them. The software is proprietary, owned by the vendors.”
Now wishing I had voted with a paper absentee ballot, I called the office of Florida’s Secretary of State Sue Cobb, hoping to hear some enthusiasm for creating a voter-verified paper audit trail in our state. I got bumped to her press secretary. “The Florida legislature has not mandated a paper trail in Florida,” droned spokeswoman Susan Smith, stating the obvious and sounding defensive. When I asked why not, she said, “You would have to speak to the legislature on that.”
Cobb, a lawyer and major Republican donor, was ambassador to Jamaica during George W. Bush’s first term before his brother Jeb named her secretary of state last December, even though she had no experience administering elections. I asked Cobb’s spokeswoman why, given all the problems we’ve seen with touch-screen voting machines, Florida was using them at all. There was a long pause. “I’m not sure who you’re getting your information from, Kirk,” Smith responded. “Can you fill me in on who you’ve been speaking with that are against the touch-screen?” I asked if she had heard of any of the widely reported problems with touch-screen voting machines around the country. “No,” she said. I had to laugh, but wanted to cry.
Kirk Nielsen is a freelance writer based in Miami Beach.