The Ballots Are Still Full of Holes


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March 2004 issue

The Ballots are Still Full of Holes

by Marc Eisen

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the Florida debacle in the 2000 Presidential election, Congress agreed in 2002 that voting practices had to be made more secure and accurate. But now we are approaching the 2004 election with an even more suspect voting technology than the notorious punch-card system.

At least that's what some computer scientists and a growing number of progressive activists contend. They are upset over election officials upgrading their voting equipment with touch-screen ballots that electronically record votes.

You think the Florida punch-card machines were a disaster? The touch-screen system could even be worse, say the critics.

"In theory, you could change votes in a way that nobody could ever detect," says David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and the founder of

Last July, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities created a furor when they declared Diebold Election Systems's software ripe for hacking. Security was "far below even the most minimal security standards," said the research team led by Avi Rubin. The researchers cited network safety problems, poor cryptography, and badly developed software as ticking time bombs. Not only could a voter "cast unlimited votes without being detected," they declared, but the prospect of an outside attack by a hacker intent on tilting an election was even greater.

The Rubin report was nothing less than a call to arms: "As a society we must carefully consider the risks inherent in electronic voting, as it places our very democracy at risk," it concluded.

Rubin's report altered the course of post-2000 reform. "It was a watershed event," says Dill. All across the country, election officials had to stop and reconsider their plans to improve voting technology by the 2004 election.

For Democrats bloodied and embittered by the mugging they got from Republican bullyboys in the Florida recount, the Rubin study was just one more reason to think dark thoughts about the unthinkable--that elections are being stolen in America. Indeed, the controversies have ignited wild "grassy knoll" speculation on the web about a coup d'?tat and the end of democracy in America. But even determinedly nonparanoids have had to give pause.

How could they not do a double take when Diebold's chief executive, Walden O'Dell, was revealed to be a rock-ribbed Republican and major donor to President Bush? Or when O'Dell held a Bush fundraiser at his Canton, Ohio, home because he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year," as he put it in a fundraising solicitation?

Note that this GOP partisan's business subsidiary will supply the allegedly tamper-prone touch-screen voting machines that at least eight million Americans will use this November.

For the record: Diebold has said that O'Dell's personal political activities are unconnected to corporate operations. As for the Rubin report, the company has dismissed the findings, saying they were based on an analysis of outdated Diebold software.

Critics haven't missed a beat, complaining that Diebold has been busily trying to suppress leaked e-mails detailing its problems rather than trying to correct the flaws in its software.

But hold on. "Progressives have gotten it all wrong," says James Dickson, a veteran organizer of voter-registration drives and vice president for governmental affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities.

"It's all ivory tower theory," he says of the arguments of Rubin and Dill. They are scaring people, he says, discouraging them from voting, and championing a remedy that will make things even worse this fall. "What's going to happen if we keep this hysteria up?" he asks.

Talk about the impending crash of onrushing locomotives! Which one is on the right track? Perhaps both. Certainly, both claim to uphold truth, justice, and the progressive mantle.

Dickson, who is a Saul Alinsky-trained community organizer, says the researchers are stunningly ignorant of the realities of election administration. Moreover, they fail to appreciate how touch-screen machines could end the second-class status of tens of millions of voters who are illiterate, physically disabled, or speak a foreign language--and are dependent on the questionable kindness of poll workers to complete their ballots.

Electronic touch-screen machines, with their easy adaptation for foreign-language ballots and audio instructions, are a godsend for these voters, says Dickson, who himself is blind.

"I've never cast a secret ballot in my life," he says. "I've always had to trust that someone else would mark the ballot the way I wanted to. There are tens of millions of Americans just like me."

Dickson concedes that American elections are riddled with problems. "The truth as horrible as it is: We have an election system that cannot accurately count votes if the margin of victory is less than 2 percent," he says. "That's just the unfortunate fact. This furor has delayed installing equipment that counts it better than what we have."

In the 2000 Presidential election, up to six million votes weren't counted, according to a joint study conducted by the California and Massachusetts institutes of technology. Confusing ballots, malfunctioning equipment, registration mix-ups, and other errors figured in the untabulated "residual" votes. Much of it, presumably, was the unintended screw-ups of a creaky, underfinanced, understaffed election system.

Other aspects, however, are downright suspicious. The intrepid Greg Palast has reported on how Florida's efforts to purge felons from its poll lists targeted 50,000 innocent people, more than half of them Hispanic or African American--and overwhelmingly Democratic voters at that.

In a rare moment of bipartisan resolve, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to have states replace outdated election equipment, reduce fraud, and increase accessibility to disabled voters. The newly created Election Assistance Commission was supposed to oversee the improvements and function as a clearinghouse for "best practices" and equipment reviews.

But Congress and the White House were slow to name the four commission members, most of the funding remains hung up in committee, and the operation is at least a year behind schedule, according to observers.

When I spoke to the commission's newly elected chairman, DeForest Soaries Jr., in January, he was without telephone, office, or staff. (He returned my call on his personal cell phone.) Soaries is well aware of the allegations about touch-screen machines and looks forward to holding hearings this year to air the debate more fully, he says.

What might he hear? Something like this.

Many election officials like touch-screen technology. It makes their jobs a whole lot easier.

Just getting rid of paper ballots is a blessing, they say, because paper ballots get real complicated in even a modestly sized community. Think of the varying levels of offices: President, Senate, House of Representatives, state upper house, state lower house, judicial, city and county offices, school board seats, and more.

Think of the overlapping voting districts, and the multiple combinations of ballots that election officials have to print, proof, and distribute. And what if they have to print those ballots not just in English but also in Spanish, Hmong, and Korean, too? And what if they underestimate the turnout and run out of ballots?

This is the stuff of nightmares.

And it's why election clerks find electronic voting so beguiling: The jigsaw puzzle of ballot combinations can easily be programmed into a touch-screen machine--in multiple languages, for that matter, with an audio prompt, no less. The problem, of course, is that there is no tangible ballot produced, just a cumulative audit trail on the machine.

Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Wisconsin Elections Board, is also concerned that touch-screen machines require special handling and programming that may be beyond the capabilities of local officials. The temptation is to contract out for such services. "It lands in the vendor's lap, who is dealing with how many other accounts with the same deadline?" he asks.

This makes Wisconsin's election chief uneasy because vendors don't have the same stake in the integrity of the election process as local officials do.

"Their only stake is in making money," he says, "not in making sure the election is done right."

Kennedy thinks the concern about hacking touch-screens is overstated, but he is still most comfortable with voting machinery that produces a hard-copy ballot for recounts. That's exactly why many reformers prefer the optical-scan system. Voters personally mark a ballot and, if votes are tallied at the precinct level, feed it into a machine where it's tabulated. In the event of a recount, election officials can count those "voter-verified" ballots and compare results to the electronic audit.

Both optical-scan and touch-screen systems, for that matter, represent an advance from the disgraced punch-card system. Voters who inadvertently vote twice for the same office will have their ballots rejected, thus giving them a second chance to correctly fill out the ballot.

Count Dill among the optical-scan supporters. But he and other reformers are prepared to accept touch-screen systems, too, if they are retrofitted with printers that produce voter-verified ballots. Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, is proposing just that requirement in what is the leading reform bill in Congress.

"We can make embedded printers that are highly reliable," Dill advises.

All this is oh-so-wrong, fumes Dickson.

Printers jam, they run out of paper, they malfunction. What do you do then, when the line of would-be voters is snaking out into the hallway? Besides, there are no tested and certified printers that work with touch-screen voting systems, Dickson points out. He thinks it's ridiculous to say they can be developed, tested, sold, and put in place across the country before November.

"Let's talk about paper," Dickson says. "It's easier to steal or manipulate an election with paper ballots. Paper gets lost, it can be destroyed, misplaced, or damaged. As a matter of fact, not theory, whenever paper ballots are counted by an automatic tabulator you never get the same results twice."

Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services and Al Gore's expert witness on voting technology in the Florida recount, shares Dickson's concerns about the dangers of attaching printers to touch-screen machines. Yet he sides with Dill and the others in wanting voter-verified ballots.

"If it's a close election, I'd like to see something on paper," Brace says. "I want to be able to divide the ballots into two stacks and decide which one is higher."

Dill has an even more striking image. Doing away with hard-copy ballots, he says, "is like eliminating the accounting department in your bank and saying there is no embezzlement. It may make you feel good, but it's certainly not a good way to detect fraud."

The impasse between the David Dills and Jim Dicksons of the election world has pretty much stopped voting reform dead in its tracks. This is not a good thing. The vilified punch-card system is still widely utilized, with 24 percent of the population using this method in the 2002 elections. So is the touch-screen system--with 20 percent using it--but minus the printer backup that Dill wants. And 31 percent used the optical-scan machines that Dickson claims are so unfriendly to the handicapped that they violate the provisions of the Help America Vote Act. (Of the remainder, 15 percent used lever machines, 1 percent used old-fashioned paper ballots, and the rest a combination.)

All across the country, election clerks have had to shelve plans to upgrade their equipment as they wait for some sort of resolution. Holt's bill, meanwhile, is bottled up in an unfriendly committee.

"Everything has ground to a halt," says Brace. "The last thing that an election official wants to do is buy machinery that may have a problem. Everybody is waiting to see what happens." Estimates now are that the sweeping improvements expected by 2004 won't be in place until 2006 at the earliest.

So what can we expect in November? If it's a blowout Presidential race, maybe a one-column story on page thirteen of your local paper talking about voting problems at a few polling places in your county. But if it's a toss-up like 2000, all hell may break out in the recount.

With even more damage to the public's faith in voting.
Marc Eisen is Editor of Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin.

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