By William Rivers Pitt
from The NewStandard
November 8, 2004
Everyone remembers Florida's 2000 election debacle, and all of the new terms it introduced to our political lexicon: Hanging chads, dimpled chads, pregnant chads, overvotes, undervotes, Sore Losermans, Jews for Buchanan and so forth. It took several weeks, battalions of lawyers and a questionable decision from the U.S. Supreme Court to show the nation and the world how messy democracy can be. By any standard, what happened in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election was a disaster.
What happened during the Presidential election of 2004, in Florida, in Ohio, and in a number of other states as well, was worse.
Some of the problems with this past Tuesday's election will sound all too familiar. Despite having four years to look into and deal with the problems that cropped up in Florida in 2000, the 'spoiled vote' chad issue reared its ugly head again. Investigative journalist Greg Palast, the man almost singularly responsible for exposing the more egregious examples of illegitimate deletions of voters from the rolls, described the continued problems in an article published just before the election, and again in an article published just after the election.
Four years later, and none of the Florida problems were fixed. In fact, by all appearances, they spread from Florida to Ohio, New Mexico, Michigan and elsewhere. Worse, these problems only scratch the surface of what appears to have happened in Tuesday's election. The fix that was put in place to solve these problemsthe Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 after the Florida debacleappears to have gone a long way towards making things worse by orders of magnitude, for it was the Help America Vote Act which introduced paperless electronic touch-screen voting machines to millions of voters across the country.
At first blush, it seems like a good idea. Forget the chads, the punch cards, the archaic booths like pianos standing on end with the handles and the curtains. This is the 21st century, so let's do it with computers. A simple screen presents straightforward choices, and you touch the spot on the screen to vote for your candidate. Your vote is recorded by the machine, and then sent via modem to a central computer which tallies the votes. Simple, right?
Is there any evidence that these machines went haywire on Tuesday? Nationally, there were more than 1,100 reports of electronic voting machine malfunctions. A few examples:
- In Broward County, Florida, election workers were shocked to discover that their shiny new machines were counting backwards. "Tallies should go up as more votes are counted," according to this report. "That's simple math. But in some races, the numbers had gone down. Officials found the software used in Broward can handle only 32,000 votes per precinct. After that, the system starts counting backward."
- In Franklin County, Ohio, electronic voting machines gave Bush 3,893 extra votes in one precinct alone. "Franklin County's unofficial results gave Bush 4,258 votes to Democratic challenger John Kerry's 260 votes in Precinct 1B," according to this report. "Records show only 638 voters cast ballots in that precinct. Matthew Damschroder, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said Bush received 365 votes there. The other 13 voters who cast ballots either voted for other candidates or did not vote for president."
- In Craven County, North Carolina, a software error on the electronic voting machines awarded Bush 11,283 extra votes. "The Elections Systems and Software equipment," according to this report, "had downloaded voting information from nine of the county's 26 precincts and as the absentee ballots were added, the precinct totals were added a second time. An override, like those occurring when one attempts to save a computer file that already exists, is supposed to prevent double counting, but did not function correctly."
- In Carteret County, North Carolina, "More than 4,500 votes may be lost in one North Carolina county because officials believed a computer that stored ballots electronically could hold more data than it did. Local officials said UniLect Corp., the maker of the county's electronic voting system, told them that each storage unit could handle 10,500 votes, but the limit was actually 3,005 votes. Officials said 3,005 early votes were stored, but 4,530 were lost."
- In LaPorte County, Indiana, a Democratic stronghold, the electronic voting machines decided that each precinct only had 300 voters. "At about 7 p.m. Tuesday," according to this report, "it was noticed that the first two or three printouts from individual precinct reports all listed an identical number of voters. Each precinct was listed as having 300 registered voters. That means the total number of voters for the county would be 22,200, although there are actually more than 79,000 registered voters."
- In Sarpy County, Nebraska, the electronic touch screen machines got generous. "As many as 10,000 extra votes," according to this report, "have been tallied and candidates are still waiting for corrected totals. Johnny Boykin lost his bid to be on the Papillion City Council. The difference between victory and defeat in the race was 127 votes. Boykin says, 'When I went in to work the next day and saw that 3,342 people had shown up to vote in our ward, I thought something's not right.' He's right. There are not even 3,000 people registered to vote in his ward. For some reason, some votes were counted twice."
Stories like this have been popping up in many of the states that put these touch-screen voting machines to use. Beyond these reports are the folks who attempted to vote for one candidate and saw the machine give their vote to the other candidate. Sometimes, the flawed machines were taken off-line, and sometimes they were not. As for the reports above, the mistakes described were caught and corrected. How many mistakes made by these machines were not caught, were not corrected, and have now become part of the record?
The flaws within these machines are well documented. Professors and researchers from Johns Hopkins performed a detailed analysis of these electronic voting machines in May of 2004. In their results, the Johns Hopkins researchers stated, "This voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts. We identify several problems including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats, and poor software development processes. We show that voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software."
"Furthermore," they continued, "we show that even the most serious of our outsider attacks could have been discovered and executed without access to the source code. In the face of such attacks, the usual worries about insider threats are not the only concerns; outsiders can do the damage. That said, we demonstrate that the insider threat is also quite considerable, showing that not only can an insider, such as a poll worker, modify the votes, but that insiders can also violate voter privacy and match votes with the voters who cast them. We conclude that this voting system is unsuitable for use in a general election."
Many of these machines do not provide the voter with a paper ballot that verifies their vote. So if an erroror purposefully inserted malicious codein the untested machine causes their vote to go for the other guy, they have no way to verify that it happened. The lack of a paper ballot also means the end of recounts as we have known them; now, on these new machines, a recount amounts to pushing a button on the machine and getting a number in return, but without those paper ballots to do a comparison, there is no way to verify the validity of that count.
Worst of all is the fact that all the votes collected by these machines are sent via modem to a central tabulating computer which counts the votes on Windows software. This means, essentially, that any gomer with access to the central tabulation machine who knows how to work an Excel spreadsheet can go into this central computer and make wholesale changes to election totals without anyone being the wiser.
Bev Harris, who has been working tirelessly since the passage of the Help America Vote Act to inform people of the dangers present in this new process, got a chance to demonstrate how easy it is to steal an election on that central tabulation computer while a guest on the CNBC program 'Topic A With Tina Brown.' Ms. Brown was off that night, and the guest host was none other than Governor Howard Dean. Thanks to Governor Dean and Ms. Harris, anyone watching CNBC that night got to see just how easy it is to steal an election because of these new machines and the flawed processes they use.
"In a voting system," Harris said on the show, "you have all the different voting machines at all the different polling places, sometimes, as in a county like mine, there's a thousand polling places in a single county. All those machines feed into the one machine so it can add up all the votes. So, of course, if you were going to do something you shouldn't to a voting machine, would it be more convenient to do it to each of the 4000 machines, or just come in here and deal with all of them at once? What surprises people is that the central tabulator is just a PC, like what you and I use. It's just a regular computer."
Harris then proceeded to open a laptop computer that had on it the software used to tabulate the votes by one of the aforementioned central processors. Journalist Thom Hartman describes what happened next: "So Harris had Dean close the Diebold GEMS tabulation software, go back to the normal Windows PC desktop, click on the 'My Computer' icon, choose 'Local Disk C:,' open the folder titled GEMS, and open the sub-folder 'LocalDB' which, Harris noted, 'stands for local database, that's where they keep the votes.' Harris then had Dean double-click on a file in that folder titled Central Tabulator Votes,' which caused the PC to open the vote count in a database program like Excel. 'Let's just flip those,' Harris said, as Dean cut and pasted the numbers from one cell into the other. Harris sat up a bit straighter, smiled, and said, 'We just edited an election, and it took us 90 seconds.'"
Any system that makes it this easy to steal or corrupt an election has no business being anywhere near the voters on election day.
The counter-argument to this states that people with nefarious intent, people with a partisan stake in the outcome of an election, would have to have access to the central tabulation computers in order to do harm to the process. Keep the partisans away from the process, and everything will work out fine. Surely no partisan political types were near these machines on Tuesday night when the votes were counted, right?
One of the main manufacturers of these electronic touch-screen voting machines is Diebold, Inc. More than 35 counties in Ohio alone used the Diebold machines on Tuesday, and millions of voters across the country did the same. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Diebold gave $100,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2000, along with additional contributions between 2001 and 2002 which totaled $95,000. Of the four companies competing for the contracts to manufacture these voting machines, only Diebold contributed large sums to any political party. The CEO of Diebold is a man named Walden O'Dell. O'Dell was very much on board with the Bush campaign, having said publicly in 2003 that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."
So much for keeping the partisans at arm's length.
Is there any evidence that vote totals were deliberately tampered with by people who had a stake in the outcome? Nothing specific has been documented to date. Jeff Fisher, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida's 16th District, claims to have evidence that the Florida election was hacked, and says further that he knows who hacked it and how it was done. Such evidence is not yet forthcoming.
There are, however, some disturbing and compelling trends that indicate things are not as they should be. This chart displays a breakdown of counties in Florida. It lists the voters in each county by party affiliation, and compares expected vote totals to the reported results. It also separates the results into two sections, one for 'touch-screen' counties and the other for optical scan counties.
Over and over in these counties, the results, based upon party registration, did not come close to matching expectations. It can be argued, and has been argued, that such results indicate nothing more or less than a President getting cross-over voters, as well as late-breaking undecided voters, to come over to his side. These are Southern Democrats, and the numbers from previous elections show that many have often voted Republican. Yet the news wires have been inundated for well over a year with stories about how stridently united Democratic voters were behind the idea of removing Bush from office. It is worth wondering why that unity did not permeate these Democratic voting districts. If that unity was there, it is worth asking why the election results in these counties do not reflect this.
Most disturbing of all is the reality that these questionable Diebold voting machines are not isolated to Florida. This list documents, as of March 2003, all of the counties in all of the 37 states where Diebold machines were used to count votes. The document is 28 pages long. That is a lot of counties, and a lot of votes, left in the hands of machines that have a questionable track record, that send their vote totals to central computers which make it far too easy to change election results, that were manufactured by a company with a personal, financial, and publicly stated stake in George W. Bush holding on to the White House.
A poster named 'TruthIsAll' on the DemocraticUnderground.com forums laid out the questionable results of Tuesday's election in succinct fashion: "To believe that Bush won the election, you must also believe: That the exit polls were wrong; that Zogby's 5pm election day calls for Kerry winning Ohio and Florida were wrong (he was exactly right in his 2000 final poll); that Harris' last-minute polling for Kerry was wrong (he was exactly right in his 2000 final poll); that incumbent rule #1undecideds break for the challengerwas wrong; That the 50% rulean incumbent doesn't do better than his final pollingwas wrong; That the approval rating rulean incumbent with less than 50% approval will most likely lose the electionwas wrong; that it was just a coincidence that the exit polls were correct where there was a paper trail and incorrect (+5% for Bush) where there was no paper trail; that the surge in new young voters had no positive effect for Kerry; that Kerry did worse than Gore against an opponent who lost the support of scores of Republican newspapers who were for Bush in 2000; that voting machines made by Republicans with no paper trail and with no software publication, which have been proven by thousands of computer scientists to be vulnerable in scores of ways, were not tampered with in this election."
In short, we have old-style vote spoilage in minority communities. We have electronic voting machines losing votes and adding votes all across the country. We have electronic voting machines whose efficiency and safety have not been tested. We have electronic voting machines that offer no paper trail to ensure a fair outcome. We have central tabulators for these machines running on Windows software, compiling results that can be demonstrably tampered with. We have the makers of these machines publicly professing their preference for George W. Bush. We have voter trends that stray from the expected results. We have these machines counting millions of votes all across the country.
Perhaps this can all be dismissed. Perhaps rants like the one posted by 'TruthIsAll' are nothing more than sour grapes from the side that lost. Perhaps all of the glitches, wrecked votes, unprecedented voting trends and partisan voting-machine connections can be explained away. If so, this reporter would very much like to see those explanations. At a bare minimum, the fact that these questions exist at all represents a grievous undermining of the basic confidence in the process required to make this democracy work. Democracy should not ever require leaps of faith, and we have put the fate of our nation into the hands of machines that require such a leap. It is unacceptable across the board, and calls into serious question not only the election we just had, but any future election involving these machines.
Representatives John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler and Robert Wexler, all members of the House Judiciary Committee, posted a letter on November 5th to David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States. In the letter, they asked for an investigation into the efficacy of these electronic voting machines. The letter reads as follows:
November 5, 2004
The Honorable David M. Walker
Comptroller General of the United States
U.S. General Accountability Office
441 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20548
Dear Mr. Walker:
We write with an urgent request that the Government Accountability Office immediately undertake an investigation of the efficacy of voting machines and new technologies used in the 2004 election, how election officials responded to difficulties they encountered and what we can do in the future to improve our election systems and administration.
In particular, we are extremely troubled by the following reports, which we would also request that you review and evaluate for us:
In Columbus, Ohio, an electronic voting system gave President Bush nearly 4,000 extra votes. ("Machine Error Gives Bush Extra Ohio Votes," Associated Press, November 5)
An electronic tally of a South Florida gambling ballot initiative failed to record thousands of votes. "South Florida OKs Slot Machines Proposal," (Id.)
In one North Carolina county, more than 4,500 votes were lost because officials mistakenly believed a computer that stored ballots could hold more data that it did. "Machine Error Gives Bush Extra Ohio Votes," (Id.)
In San Francisco, a glitch occurred with voting machines software that resulted in some votes being left uncounted. (Id.)
In Florida, there was a substantial drop off in Democratic votes in proportion to voter registration in counties utilizing optical scan machines that was apparently not present in counties using other mechanisms.
The House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff has received numerous reports from Youngstown, Ohio that voters who attempted to cast a vote for John Kerry on electronic voting machines saw that their votes were instead recorded as votes for George W. Bush. In South Florida, Congressman Wexler's staff received numerous reports from voters in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties that they attempted to select John Kerry but George Bush appeared on the screen. CNN has reported that a dozen voters in six states, particularly Democrats in Florida, reported similar problems. This was among over one thousand such problems reported. ("Touchscreen Voting Problems Reported," Associated Press, November 5)
Excessively long lines were a frequent problem throughout the nation in Democratic precincts, particularly in Florida and Ohio. In one Ohio voting precinct serving students from Kenyon College, some voters were required to wait more than eight hours to vote. ("All Eyes on Ohio," Dan Lothian, CNN, November 3)
We are literally receiving additional reports every minute and will transmit additional information as it comes available. The essence of democracy is the confidence of the electorate in the accuracy of voting methods and the fairness of voting procedures. In 2000, that confidence suffered terribly, and we fear that such a blow to our democracy may have occurred in 2004.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this inquiry.
John Conyers, Jr., Jerrold Nadler, Robert Wexler
Ranking Member, Ranking Member, Member of Congress
House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution
cc: Hon. F. James Sensenbrenner, Chairman
"The essence of democracy," wrote the Congressmen, "is the confidence of the electorate in the accuracy of voting methods and the fairness of voting procedures. In 2000, that confidence suffered terribly, and we fear that such a blow to our democracy may have occurred in 2004." Those fears appear to be valid.
John Kerry and John Edwards promised on Tuesday night that every vote would count, and that every vote would be counted. By Wednesday morning, Kerry had conceded the race to Bush, eliciting outraged howls from activists who were watching the reports of voting irregularities come piling in. Kerry had said that 10,000 lawyers were ready to fight any wrongdoing in this election. One hopes that he still has those lawyers on retainer.
According to black-letter election law, Bush does not officially get a second term until the electors from the Electoral College go to Washington D.C on December 12th. Perhaps Kerry's 10,000 lawyers, along with a real investigation per the request of Conyers, Nadler and Wexler, could give those electors something to think about in the interim.
In the meantime, soon-to-be-unemployed DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe sent out an email on Saturday night titled 'Help determine the Democratic Party's next steps.' In the email, McAuliffe states, "If you were involved in these grassroots activities, we want to hear from you about your experience. What did you do? Did you feel the action you took was effective? Was it a good experience for you? How would you make it better? Tell us your thoughts." He provided a feedback form where such thoughts can be sent.
Use the form. Give Terry your thoughts on the matter. Ask him if those 10,000 lawyers are still available. It seems the validity of Tuesday's election remains a wide-open question.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.'