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October's Lowdown

October 2003, Volume 5, Number 10

Edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer


In the Brave New World of electronic voting

Who's counting our votes? Bushite corporate bosses

Welcome to WallyWorld. Like some combination of Oz, Alice's Wonderland, and the Brothers Grimm, it's a fabulistic realm ripe with political symbolism and significance. In the futuristic Land of Wally, elections take place in cyberspace, and the voting process has been privatized. Indeed, voting machines themselves are owned and tightly controlled by a small group of for-profit corporations. These corporate machines "count" the votes and issue a cybertally to declare the winner. The inner workings of the machinery are a corporate secret--public election officials are barred from examining the computer code to see if any flaws (or fraud) have been programmed into the system. Even in cases where recounts are ordered, only the corporate owners get to peek inside the computer's innards. In other words, in this magical land, the keys to the kingdom have been turned over to private electioneering firms. Mere voters are simply expected to "trust" the system . . . and to moo contentedly as they move through the corporate polling booths.

But WallyWorld is no fable. It's all too real, and the place where it's all happening is right here in the U.S. of A., where 30 states have already turned over the people's balloting to a handful of these proprietary, profit- seeking interests that reek with conflicts of interest.

Meet Wally O'Dell. He is CEO of Diebold Inc., an ATM-maker that has moved aggressively into what is now known as the electronic-voting industry. Diebold has rapidly become the second-largest purveyor of "touch-screen" voting machines. Already, over 33,000 of Wally's computers have been installed in polling places across the country. This is interesting for two big reasons: 1) Diebold keeps having "incidents" with its machinery, leading to a growing concern that the company is losing, or even stealing, large numbers of our votes; and 2) Wally himself is a rabidly partisan Republican.

How partisan is O'Dell? In August, he was a guest at George W.'s ranchette down in Crawford, Texas, where he and several other of Bush's fund-raising "Rangers" had a private tete-a-tete with the prez to discuss how each of them would raise $200,000 or more to keep their boy in the White House. So excited was Wally to be part of Bush's team that he went home to Ohio and promptly sent out letters to his wealthy associates declaring that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." He then invited them to attend a $10,000-a-plate Bush fund-raiser at Cotswold Manor, his mansion in a swank suburb of Columbus.

One day after this solicitation hit the mail, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State moved to qualify Wally's Diebold to sell its electronic-voting machines to the state's county officials. You don't need Karl Malden's nose to smell this stinker. What we have here is a politically biased corporation raising big bucks for the guy whose votes the corporation will be counting. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between fact and fiction is that fiction must be believable." Unbelievably, the fact is that our country is rushing pell-mell to the corporatization of our most basic democratic exercise: voting.

The fix

What wrong turn did our leaders take from America's straight and true democratic path to lead us into this fine fix? Initially, it looked like a well-intentioned turn. After the hanging-chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, spooked national, state, and local officials were scrambling for a way to reform the voting system. Out of the darkness stepped the most unlikely of caped crusaders: corporations. Whispering the magic word "computers," corporate lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill with promises that high-tech was the path to true reform, since electronic voting has no chads to hang and, in fact, no paper of any sort to "clog" the machinery of democracy.

Thus was born HAVA--the Help America Vote Act. It requires states to replace mechanical voting machines with touch-screen systems, and Congress has allocated nearly $4 billion for the technology, systems, and future upgrades that will soon have all of us balloting in cyberspace. That's a serious chunk of change to divvy up among the privatizers. Besides Wally, here are some of the big players who are cashing in on this government- fed boondoggle:

Election Systems and Software. The largest seller of computerized voting systems in the country, ES&S counts Nebraska's Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as its former top exec. ES&S is a subsidiary of the McCarthy Group Inc., a merchantbanking company based in Omaha. It's headed by Michael McCarthy, who (coincidentally) serves as Hagel's campaign treasurer. The senator continues to hold some $5 million worth of stock in the McCarthy Group--yes, the company that counts Chuck's votes in each of his elections! Just to add a family touch, McCarthy's son works in Hagel's press office.

Science Applications International Corporation. A major Pentagon contractor, SAIC is now drawing big bucks as a technology consultant to the corporations and governments behind the electronic-voting gold rush. This corporation is a haven for former military and CIA brass: Its vice chairman and former president is Admiral Bill Owens, who had previously been a top assistant to Dick Cheney; and its board members have included ex-CIA directors Bobby Ray Inman, John Deutch, and Robert Gates (currently the head of the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M), as well as former Pentagon chief William Perry. SAIC has had numerous legal problems with its performance on various government jobs, including being charged with fabricating tests, civil fraud, and making false claims--not exactly the reputation you'd want for an entity now messing in America's election process.

Speaking of Pentagon contractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman are also in the game and lobbied forcefully for HAVA, as did computer giant EDS and the offshore financial schemer Accenture (the spawn of disgraced accounting giant Arthur Andersen, of Enron infamy). Accenture, which boasts that it is not a U.S. firm but a world corporation headquartered in Bermuda, is one of two foreign outfits that have already gained a piece of America's electronic-voting pie. The other is Sequoia, owned by England's DeLaRue corporation and now the thirdlargest provider of computerized voting systems in the U.S.

These new election barons proclaim that computer technology is secure, accurate, and certified by the authorities, so don't go worrying your little heads about stuff that's none of your business anyway. We're experts . . . trust us. Do we look like we just fell off a turnip truck? First, computers inevitably and routinely are filled with programming errors and flaws; they crash about as often as they run smoothly; and they are frequently attacked by hackers, bugs, viruses, worms, and other malevolent forces. To quote Verifiedvoting.org, an organization of concerned computer engineers and programmers: "With these paperless machines, there is nothing that can stop a determined group from achieving large-scale election theft. We see no reason why major problems will not occur, including obviously messed-up elections [and] election of incorrect candidates."

Second, it is simply a lie that the corporate systems are subject to rigorous oversight by state or county election officials. Authorities are not allowed to look at the secret source code, much less examine it line by line to find little glitches or switches that could upend a vote. A number of credible technology labs quit certifying voting machines because outfits like Diebold and ES&S would not let them make a detailed examination of the code.

Bev starts to dig

Bev Harris of Renton, Washington, is the electronic-voting industry's worst nightmare: a smart, feisty woman who is onto their dirty little secrets and won't be shut up--even when the industry gets ugly with her. Bev got interested in the issue when she read an article that questioned the corporate ownership of these voting machines. A former investigative researcher, she wanted to know more and began digging. In January, she stumbled onto a mother lode of information--an open Diebold website that contained 40,000 files of source code and user manuals for its machines.

A Diebold vice president later said that posting this sensitive material on a publicly accessible site was "a huge mistake." Yes, it was, for Bev's discovery led to an expert analysis of Diebold's system by four computer scientists at Rice University and the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Their study revealed stunning flaws in the company's system:

  • An individual with a minimum of computer knowledge could gain access to a machine on election day, see the ongoing tally, and terminate further voting on that machine.
  • With a homemade smart card, one could cast multiple votes.
  • With a regular phone line, one could tap into the machine and view the results.

The academic researchers were not alone in their criticism. In a separate study, SAIC, the industry's own top consulting firm, found 328 security weaknesses-- 26 of them critical--in Diebold machines being sold to the State of Maryland. SAIC reported that the system was "at high risk of compromise" due to software flaws, leaving the voting system open to hackers and fraud.

Flaws and fraud are not merely theoretical concerns. Though it has received precious little massmedia coverage, these machines have been producing all sorts of "incidents," including these:

Georgia. In 2002, the Peach State had six big upsets of Democrats by Republicans, including in the U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Max Cleland had a big lead in the polls but surprisingly was upended by the GOP's Saxby Chambliss.

The statewide vote was cast on 22,000 Diebold machines. Just before the election, Diebold reportedly applied software "patches" to all of these machines, purportedly to fix a problem with the computers crashing. The patches were said to have been "certified" by election officials by phone--with no examination of what the patches actually did. Diebold honchos later said that they had investigated themselves and--surprise!--found they had done nothing to mess with the system . . . pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Bev, however--ever the digger-- later discovered that Diebold has disposed of all the memory cards from these touch-screen machines. "You keep paper ballots for 22 months," she notes, "and they're an awful lot bulkier than those credit-card-size memory cards, but for some reason they felt compelled to get rid of them all."

Janet Reno. Running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last year, Reno noted some unusual outcomes on election day. In South Florida precincts, where she was strong, the ES&S voting machines were inexplicably recording no votes in the governor's race. In some polling places where there were over 1,000 votes cast in other races, there were no votes for governor. ES&S later sent "data extraction" technicians, who "found" some votes. Was this the actual count? Officials don't know; it was ES&S that certified the count. Reno lost by less than 5,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast.

The San Luis Obispo "Oops." It is illegal for anyone to count, or even see, vote totals before the polls close. But on March 5 last year, at 3:31 p.m. on election day in this California city, Diebold's machines in 57 precincts simultaneously "called home" to corporate headquarters and reported the mid-afternoon tally, which then went up on a Diebold website--in plenty of time for interested partisans to mobilize their voters.

Problems are routine: In a Washington, Florida, city runoff election, the winner beat the opponent by only four votes, but 78 electronic ballots were blank. Election officials refused to blame the machines, asserting that these 78 voters came apparently to the polls and then chose not to vote in the only race on the ballot.

In Middlesex County, New Jersey, a Sequoia machine was taken out of service after 65 votes had been cast without reg- istering a choice for either of the candidates. Yet Sequoia blamed the voters, again maintaining that people were coming to the polls but not voting. In Canal County, Texas, three Republican candidates experienced an astonishing coincidence when the electronic machines declared them victors in their respective races by the exact same margin of 18,181 votes. Then there's our boy Chuck Hagel, who first won a U.S. Senate seat in 1996 in a big upset, including his winning in majority black precincts that had never voted Republican--all recorded on machines owned by ES&S, the company he headed before running for Senate.

Attack the messenger

When Bev uncovered Hagel's ties to ES&S, she tipped off The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, which in turn prompted a Senate ethics inquiry into Chuck's voting-industry connections (much of which he had failed to disclose).

Ever the sporting types, Chuck and his ES&S colleagues unleashed their legal dogs on Bev, threatening her with lawsuits for "defamation." Then came Diebold. Ticked off that Bev had published their internal memos on the Internet, they had their lawyers send a cease-and-desist letter which, ironically, authenticated the memos and laid corporate claim to them, asserting that they were copyrighted documents. Using the draconian powers of the abusive Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Diebold then tried to shut her up by forcing her Internet providers to pull down her website.

She's not about to back down. Her website is back up, and she recently revealed a most interesting secret meeting of a panicked electronic-voting industry. It was an insider teleconference that Bev's colleague, David Allen, learned about and boldly dialed into without being questioned. The invitees included officials of Diebold, ES&S, Sequoia, and other voting-machine companies. Ironically, the meeting was led by Doug Lewis, head of the Election Center, a private firm that also doubles as the quasiregulator of the industry, supposedly overseeing the integrity of the machines, while also coordinating affairs between the vendors and state election officials. Lewis is the perfect embodiment of George W.'s philosophy of "voluntary regulation."

The purpose of the phone meeting was to create a PR front to counter the rising public outcry against voting privatization. Allen reports that Lewis asked the members to cough up $200,000 to fund a PR and congressional- lobbying campaign to refute any and all who question electronic voting. Allen's notes (see www.blackboxvoting.com) include Lewis saying, "Of course, we'll have to put some distance between the Election Center and this lobbying once it gets going."

What to do?

Amazingly, there's a simple solution to all of this: Require a voter-verifiable paper trail of every vote in every election. This is hardly techno-wizardry. Just as your ATM prints out a receipt of your withdrawal, which you can later compare with your monthly bank statement to verify that the bank's computers played no games with your money, so can voting machines give us an auditable paper trail of our votes.

Here are the steps: You vote on a touch-screen system; the machine prints a paper ballot of how you voted; you verify on the touch screen that the ballot is correct; you then turn in your print-out to election officials; they put it directly in a lock-box, which they must hold for at least a year. Thus the actual votes are there so the election can be physically reconstituted in case there is a recount or charges of fraud.

One more thing: The computer code cannot be held as a corporate secret. This is not code for some video game, for godssake, but for our nation's democratic electoral process! A copy of the code used for each machine in each election must be given to public election officials for their independent analysis before, during, and after every election. The good news is that there is a bill that embodies all of the above: H.R. 2239, the Voter Confidence Act, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt and some 40 other members of Congress. Also, the technology already exists to provide voter-verifiable audit trails, so there's no reason this can't be done quickly.

All that's needed is you and me to light a prairie fire so bright and hot that Congress feels the heat and passes H.R. 2239 now. Martin Luther King III and author Greg Palast have launched an on-line petition drive to deluge Congress with demands that voting machines leave a paper trail, as provided in Rep. Holt's bill (see "Do Something!"). Sign up and zap it to others--and let's yank our public elections out of the



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