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Hack the Vote


Published: December 2, 2003

Inviting Bush supporters to a fund-raiser, the host wrote, "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." No surprise there. But Walden O'Dell — who says that he wasn't talking about his business operations — happens to be the chief executive of Diebold Inc., whose touch-screen voting machines are in increasingly widespread use across the United States.

For example, Georgia — where Republicans scored spectacular upset victories in the 2002 midterm elections — relies exclusively on Diebold machines. To be clear, though there were many anomalies in that 2002 vote, there is no evidence that the machines miscounted. But there is also no evidence that the machines counted correctly. You see, Diebold machines leave no paper trail.

Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, who has introduced a bill requiring that digital voting machines leave a paper trail and that their software be available for public inspection, is occasionally told that systems lacking these safeguards haven't caused problems. "How do you know?" he asks.

What we do know about Diebold does not inspire confidence. The details are technical, but they add up to a picture of a company that was, at the very least, extremely sloppy about security, and may have been trying to cover up product defects.

Early this year Bev Harris, who is writing a book on voting machines, found Diebold software — which the company refuses to make available for public inspection, on the grounds that it's proprietary — on an unprotected server, where anyone could download it. (The software was in a folder titled "rob-Georgia.zip.") The server was used by employees of Diebold Election Systems to software on its machines. This in itself was an incredible breach of security, offering someone who wanted to hack into the machines both the information and the opportunity to do so.

An analysis of Diebold software by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Rice Universities found it both unreliable and subject to abuse. A later report commissioned by the state of Maryland apparently reached similar conclusions. (It's hard to be sure because the state released only a heavily redacted version.)

Meanwhile, leaked internal Diebold e-mail suggests that corporate officials knew their system was flawed, and circumvented tests that would have revealed these problems. The company hasn't contested the authenticity of these documents; instead, it has engaged in legal actions to prevent their dissemination.

Why isn't this front-page news? In October, a British newspaper, The Independent, ran a hair-raising investigative report on U.S. touch-screen voting. But while the mainstream press has reported the basics, the Diebold affair has been treated as a technology or business story — not as a potential political scandal.

This diffidence recalls the treatment of other voting issues, like the Florida "felon purge" that inappropriately prevented many citizens from voting in the 2000 presidential election. The attitude seems to be that questions about the integrity of vote counts are divisive at best, paranoid at worst. Even reform advocates like Mr. Holt make a point of dissociating themselves from "conspiracy theories." Instead, they focus on legislation to prevent future abuses.

But there's nothing paranoid about suggesting that political operatives, given the opportunity, might engage in dirty tricks. Indeed, given the intensity of partisanship these days, one suspects that small dirty tricks are common. For example, Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently announced that one of his aides had improperly accessed sensitive Democratic computer files that were leaked to the press.

This admission — contradicting an earlier declaration by Senator Hatch that his staff had been cleared of culpability — came on the same day that the Senate police announced that they were hiring a counterespionage expert to investigate the theft. Republican members of the committee have demanded that the expert investigate only how those specific documents were leaked, not whether any other breaches took place. I wonder why.

The point is that you don't have to believe in a central conspiracy to worry that partisans will take advantage of an insecure, unverifiable voting system to manipulate election results. Why expose them to temptation?

I'll discuss what to do in a future column. But let's be clear: the credibility of U.S. democracy may be at stake.  


To the Editor:

Re "Hack the Vote," by Paul Krugman (column, Dec. 2):

Mine is a voice from the belly of the beast (Palm Beach County, Fla.) who is not sure whether she voted for Al Gore or Patrick J. Buchanan in 2000.

My county now has touch-screen voting without a paper trail, and I am terrified of a hacking scandal in 2004 — here or elsewhere — that will make pregnant chads look like simple artifacts of the Neanderthal age.

The bill of Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, to mandate a paper trail would at least give hope for accurate recounts and should be enacted immediately. This is a national emergency.

West Palm Beach, Fla., Dec. 2, 2003

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman's concerns about the integrity of the Diebold touch-screen voting machines ("Hack the Vote," column, Dec. 2) give rise to a larger question: Is our political system truly democratic if many elections are compromised by vote-count anomalies and voting machines that are built without appropriate safeguards?

Until every American's vote is counted by an indisputably accurate and verifiable process, we will be a democracy in spirit, but not necessarily in practice.

Powell, Ohio, Dec. 2, 2003

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman ("Hack the Vote," column, Dec. 2) warns against the danger of computerized voting machines, but the real danger is the new, federally mandated computerization of voter rolls.

As he mentions, the disaster in Florida in 2000 was the wrongful disenfranchisement of voters.

Katherine Harris's office, using a computerized database with known faults, misidentified these citizens as felons, then purged them from voter registries.

Last year, with little fanfare and less scrutiny, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which effectively orders all states to buy the computerized voting machines that Mr. Krugman rightly dreads. Worse, the law requires all states to computerize their voter rolls and purge those lists of suspect voters, à la Florida.

Heaven help us when President Bush and Congress tell us that they are going to "help" us vote.

New York, Dec. 2, 2003
The writer, an investigative reporter, is the author of a book about the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in the 2000 election.

To the Editor:

Re "Hack the Vote," by Paul Krugman (column, Dec. 2):

In California last month, Kevin Shelley, the secretary of state, mandated that all electronic voting machines be equipped with a paper trail. But one element of his decision that, strangely, is not discussed in the news media is that his requirement does not begin to take effect until July 2005, more than half a year after the 2004 presidential election, and the full implementation not until July 2006.

Why does it take two and a half years to do such a simple upgrade?

It is a chilling thought indeed to contemplate casting a ballot on a machine that will not allow a recount.

Asking a machine to recount itself without a separate paper trail is meaningless. It is especially so when the chief executive of the company that sells the electronic voting machines ambiguously declares that he is committed to deliver electoral votes to the president next year.

Los Angeles, Dec. 2, 2003

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman (column, Dec. 2) cites Diebold Inc. and its hackable, paper-record-less, touch-screen voting machines as a potential threat to the credibility of American democracy.

It may come as a surprise, but the credibility of your democracy is already being questioned in much of the rest of the world.

We've seen dubious redistricting schemes and the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

Your democracy has already changed from a shining example to an object lesson in how quickly and easily democracy can be damaged.

North Vancouver, British Columbia
Dec. 2, 2003


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