No Paper, No Trail: An Open Invitation To Electoral Fraud
ES&S provides the tools, training, and support
for total election management.
– Election Systems & Software
describing itself in a catalogue
On November 22nd, some two weeks after this year's midterm elections, the non-profit Center for Democracy issued a report commissioned by Florida's Miami-Dade County in which they evaluated that county's performance in running its election. They gave the county an "A" for its efforts and commented, "American democracy was the big winner in the November 5 election in Miami-Dade." The process, the report added, was "thorough and transparent." Given the fact that not a single voter in that jurisdiction (other than absentee and provisional voters) will ever be objectively assured that his or her vote was tabulated correctly, these statements by CFD seem unwarranted at best, self-serving at worst.
Taking a closer look at this "transparent" election process, it doesn't look transparent at all, but rather opaque and defective to the point of universal disenfranchisement. There is simply no way to check whether any vote entered into the county's new touch-screen voting machinery was tabulated correctly; there is no paper trail to verify the vote count and absolutely no independent verification system. Election officials can only ask the machines to recompile the vote totals - in other words, to run a self-check. This is the reason that after the botched Florida Democratic primary for governor in September, the close outcome was never satisfactorily confirmed; a recount with this technology is an exercise in corporate faith, since the manufacturer's software and hardware must be trusted to verify itself. Furthermore, the makers of the equipment, Election Systems & Software (a Nebraska firm once headed by Senator Chuck Hagel and connected to the right wing of the Republican Party) will not permit anyone to inspect its complicated and encrypted operating code. They declare "proprietary rights," and so far no one has challenged them on this with sufficient vigor, despite the fact that any computer programmer could easily design a difficult-to-detect method for vote-grabbing in such a sealed system. Even a single well-placed hacker could pull it off.
Such a scenario of rigged computer programming was anticipated in The New Republic two years ago in an excellent column by Ronnie Dugger. But it was ignored and now that tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been dumped into this technology, there will be the natural inertia-of-scant-resources opposing any effort to fix the problem. The CFD report itself notes that a massive ongoing outlay will be required merely to sustain it. Nevertheless, now is the time to push the issue to the top of the national agenda. Democracy is a meaningless word if confidence in the electoral system disappears, and the ability to assure that our votes count can and should trump all other issues.
This is not to say that fraud has occurred, only that it is impossible to know whether fraud has occurred or not. Near the end of the CFD report the consultants actually admit the lack of verifiability endemic to paperless voting:
"Transparency needs to be added to the process concerning precisely how the vote counts are protected in each machine, in each precinct ... [and] a system of checks and balances to protect the integrity of each vote ... is essential so that citizens have absolute confidence that tampering cannot take place."
The reference to protecting votes in each machine and precinct is a sidelong acknowledgement of the proprietary software issue, since in this case that is the only way "the vote counts are protected." More fundamental is the reference to "absolute confidence," for the fact is that no voting system is tamper-free without a "check and balance" of paper ballots -- especially if the software programs that run the machinery are inaccessible to public scrutiny. These references alone clearly contradict the glowing endorsement of "transparency" that CFD gives to Miami-Dade County and to its paperless, touchscreen equipment.
And there are other shortcomings mentioned in the CFD report that beg scrutiny in light of the generous "A." Buried in the middle of the report is a bombshell:
"One of the most serious systemic problems observed in the County election was the absence of a master list, by precinct, of voters presenting themselves to vote. Therefore there is no fully secure method to determine whether the number of voters who came to vote in each precinct is the same as the number of voters shown as voting on the machines."
So not only are the votes ultimately unverifiable by any documentary evidence, but the voter totals weren't even checked against precinct registries! Immediately before, the report had clearly stated that a cross-checking process was necessary to "determine whether all election results have been downloaded...and are accurate."
Perhaps the CFD simply indulged in grade-inflation. A CFD grade of, well, C, F, or D would have been much more appropriate given all of Miami-Dade's deficiencies. To hope for a true "A," the county must implement the obvious antidote to this problem: physical ballots must be required as backups to any electronic voting system. There should also be mandatory random recount samples in every election to verify the ongoing accuracy of the voting equipment, even when close-election recounts are not called for.
This is not a partisan issue. If these requirements were in place in Chicago in the recent past, for instance, many Democratic "votes" would have disappeared. Florida's GOP-flavored electoral notoriety is only the latest in a long, sordid, multi-party string. Democracy will not have come of age in our country until that string is broken.
Bruce Cole is a Maine-based carpenter, songwriter, and political activist. He notes that while the facts above have been examined by others, much remains to be uncovered. More information is available at www.votewatch.us and at www.talion.com/election-machines.html, a site that has been threatened with a lawsuit by ES&S and has posted that threat along with other information the Nebraska firm finds troublesome.
Contact Bruce Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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