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Voting machines may take away right to vote
Staff column

Matt Brown
November 17, 2003

Remember the hanging chad problem? Well, we don’t have to worry about it any more. The solution? Electronic voting machines.

There are, however, a couple new problems.

One, the programming code used to count the votes is a secret from everyone outside the company making the machines.

Two, these companies aren’t exactly impartial.

Diebold Inc. is the second-largest maker of touch-screen voting machines in the country.

Diebold’s CEO is Walley O’Dell, who recently stated that he is “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” He recently held a $10,000-a-plate Bush fund-raiser at his mansion.

According to Jim Hightower, his voting machines keep having “incidents,” and in some elections using Diebold machines, Republican underdogs are winning out over the Democrats who were leading in the pre-election polls.

But what am I so worried about? If you can't trust fanatically partisan Republicans with connections to our political leaders to accurately count our votes, then who can you trust?

“But Matt,” you say, “you're just assuming the worst. They could have secure systems and accurate, bug-free source code.”

They could, except that a couple weeks ago, a hacker broke into their computers and stole their source code, code that experts say is just plain bad.

Dan Wallach of Rice University called the software “absolutely unsuitable for use in an election” and “of a quality below what you might expect from any commercial software, much less something for a critical environment like voting.”

Wallach and three other computer scientists at Rice and Johns Hopkins universities did an analysis of the software and found that someone with minimum computer knowledge could gain access to the computer and shut it down, or a computer savvy person with a homemade smart card could cast multiple votes.

The hacker also came away with memos and e-mails in which company insiders not only comment on the flaws in their software, but also joke about it and discuss ways to get around it.

The good news is that Diebold is not the only company making electronic voting machines. The bad news is that the competition isn’t much better.

Elections Systems and Software, or ES&S, is the largest seller of computerized voting systems in the United States.

According to The Hill, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel was elected on ES&S machines shortly after leaving his other job as chairman of ES&S.

Hagel still owns about $5 million in stock of the parent company, McCarthy Group Inc., which is headed by Michael McCarthy, Hagel’s campaign treasurer.

Just like Diebold, the conflict of interest isn’t the only thing garnering criticism against ES&S.

During the vote for Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Florida last year, several precincts were inexplicably showing no votes cast in the governor’s race.

ES&S machines were obviously malfunctioning, so the company later sent out data extraction technicians who “found” some votes.

Maybe we don’t need to worry about these glaring conflicts of interest, and maybe the really bad code will be fixed, but these are two things we shouldn’t need to worry about.

You are losing your most basic democratic exercise. Not that I think it matters, but hey, I thought you’d like to know.

— Matt Brown is a mechanical engineering sophomore. His column appears every other Monday. He can be reached at dailyopinion@ou.edu.

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