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Rage Against the Machine

by Boston-Cambridge Greens Monday, Jan. 08, 2001 at 9:35 AM
boston-cambridge-greens@usa.net

There's another impediment to safeguarding vote-counting software against manipulation: The election companies consider their codes private property and are willing to go to court, citing intellectual property laws, to keep candidates or public officials from looking at it.

Rage Against the Machine

by Ronnie Dugger

http://www.afd-online.org

Post date 11.22.00 | Issue date 12.04.00

The Bush campaign has made a lot of questionable assertions in

the last two weeks: about the authority of the Florida

secretary of state, about the propriety of hand counts, about

the need for "finality." But one claim that probably struck

most people as incontrovertible was James Baker's statement

that "[m]achines are neither Republicans nor Democrats and

therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased."

Literally speaking, of course, he's right: Machines don't have

political beliefs. But computer programmers do. Just as a

dishonest and determined vote inspector can claim to see a

hanging chad where none exists, so can a dishonest and

determined vote-counting-machine programmer add votes to a

candidate's total, transfer votes from one candidate to

another, or determine an outcome with a specified percentage

spread.

Voting machines, in other words, can be as "biased" as their

human masters want them to be. And when they are it's a lot

harder to detect. To steal votes in the South Florida hand

recounts, you'd have to escape the eyes of an army of

bipartisan observers and reporters. Stealing votes by

reprogramming the voting machines, by contrast, would take

place deep within the zeros and ones of computer code,

invisible to public officials or suspicious candidates.

Indeed, even the software's own designers admit that without

security checks on the process and a hand count as a fallback,

we'd have no way to know whether such fraud had taken place.

Although Baker has called ballot computers "precision

machines," there are plenty of documented cases of machine

errors. In Missoula County, Montana, in 1968, machines counted

ballots cast for Richard Nixon as votes for Hubert Humphrey,

and vice versa. In 1978, a candidate for comptroller in

Illinois successfully reversed the outcome of an election in

one county because the computer had "flipped" the results.

Computers in Orange County, California, in 1980 gave about

15,000 Democratic-primary votes for Jimmy Carter or Edward

Kennedy to Lyndon LaRouche or Jerry Brown. That same year, in

San Antonio, computers were unable to count more than 9,000

votes for any office on the ballot, depriving Ronald Reagan

and other candidates of votes.

Most of these problems resulted from faulty equipment or

programming errors.

But fraud can occur, too. The nation's more than 10,000 voting

jurisdictions buy their computer equipment from privately owned

companies. The companies write the basic "source code" on which

the machines operate, but those codes must then be customized

for each jurisdiction. Sometimes the companies do this

customizing themselves. Often, though, local election districts

bring in their own outside computer specialists to do the work

--creating additional opportunity for foul play.

In fact, it would be relatively easy for somebody with

programming knowledge to instruct a computer to add extra votes

or to discount some--and to do so in a way that would escape

notice. "There are at least a half-dozen places, maybe a few

less, where you could lay in a Trojan horse [for instance, a

secret vote-counting control algorithm] in that source code

--lay in routines to do whatever you wanted to in an election,"

Wayne Nunn, a computer specialist who examined the source code

in a contested West Virginia election, once told me.

(Then, to prove his point, he sat down at his computer while we

were talking and, within ten minutes, had rewritten code so the

computer made two and two add up to five.) "I have no

question," says Randall H. Erben, President Reagan's special

counsel for ballot integrity, "that somebody who's smart enough

with a computer could probably rig it to mistabulate.... It's

going to be virtually undetectable if it's done correctly."

Election officials insist that they run "logic and accuracy

tests" to prevent tampering. But these tests are often woefully

inadequate. Dr. Peter Neumann, a senior computer specialist at

SRI International in Menlo Park, California, says a skilled

user of a conventional computer system can "do almost anything

he wants and leave no trace.... You effectively have to trust

the entire staff of the corporation that is producing your

software. Every single member has to be trusted." Because of

poor security controls in many election districts, Neumann

says, it is "relatively easy" to start the counting with, say,

3,000 votes for one candidate and zero for the other, even

though the counters would indicate zero for both. "I program

it," he explains, "so that, after the test is run ... it

simply adds thousands of votes."

And there's another impediment to safeguarding software against

manipulation: The election companies consider their codes

private property and are willing to go to court, citing

intellectual property laws, to keep candidates or public

officials from looking at it. This is precisely what happened

in--you guessed it--Florida twelve years ago, when Democrat

Buddy MacKay lost his Senate bid to Republican Connie Mack by

a razor-thin margin after a recount. Immediately after the

election, suspicious of "a problem in the software," MacKay

asked to examine the vote-counting computer codes in three of

the very same predominantly Democratic counties at the center

of the current battle. But those counties (and two others)

refused, saying the codes were the private property of the

vote-counting companies involved. Discouraged, MacKay gave up.

"My understanding is that it's possible to program a computer

for it to count wrong for a while and then straighten itself

out," MacKay says. "Now that I realize the level of

sophistication, I realize how easy it would be for somebody

to, in effect, rewire that program for a brief period of time

and then have it straighten itself out. I don't know how anybody

could prove that."

None of this means Mack or his supporters stole the election

through software sabotage--any more than it means somebody in

the Bush camp (or, for that matter, the Gore camp) stole votes

this year. The point is less that fraud has occurred than that

it could--and we might never know. "Of course, it would have to

be a national election," mused David Dunbar, former president

of Computer Election Systems, the company that built the

Votomatic punch-card machines on which the ballots of 37

percent of American voters are still counted. "You'd have to

concentrate on a few states and counties and precincts that

you'd need. It isn't a matter of millions of votes. You'd need

ten votes in this precinct, 50 there, 100 there.... You'd have

to be careful about the politics and the precincts. You'd have

to rifle in on the ones that were crucial. From there on it

would be easy."

Dunbar told me he has lost sleep worrying that someone might

bribe his programmers. So should the rest of us. If the Florida

fiasco is going to prompt a national reexamination of the way

America runs elections, that reexamination should start with a

recognition that the machines that count our votes are not

today--and probably never will be--completely safe. It's just

one more reason that counting ballots the old-fashioned way,

by hand, is still the best guarantee that the voters' will is

observed. No matter what James Baker says.

RONNIE DUGGER is completing a book on the history of voting.



"The only true aging is the erosion of one's ideals.

They're people of increasingly low expectations.

That's the definition of a frightened liberal."

- Ralph Nader

http://www.greens.org - Globalize Democracy.

http://www.votenader.org - Run with Ralph.

http://www.bfi.org - Utopia or Oblivion?

http://www.tompaine.com - Common Sense.

http://www.futurenet.org - Yes! Positive Futures.

http://www.indymedia.org - Independent Media Center.

http://www.transaction.net - What is Money?

http://www.grb.net - Global Currency for the 21st Century.

http://www.cinetopia.net - The Power of Light.

http://www.freespeech.org - Share Your Mind.

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