Will The Next Election Be Hacked?
(Courtesy of Thoughts on the Eve of the Apocalypse)
Will The Next Election Be Hacked?: Fresh disasters at the polls -- and new evidence from an industry insider -- prove that electronic voting machines can't be trusted
ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR.
The debacle of the 2000 presidential election made it all too apparent to most Americans that our electoral system is broken. And private-sector entrepreneurs were quick to offer a fix: Touch-screen voting machines, promised the industry and its lobbyists, would make voting as easy and reliable as withdrawing cash from an ATM. Congress, always ready with funds for needy industries, swiftly authorized $3.9 billion to upgrade the nation's election systems - with much of the money devoted to installing electronic voting machines in each of America's 180,000 precincts. But as midterm elections approach this November, electronic voting machines are making things worse instead of better. Studies have demonstrated that hackers can easily rig the technology to fix an election - and across the country this year, faulty equipment and lax security have repeatedly undermined election primaries. In Tarrant County, Texas, electronic machines counted some ballots as many as six times, recording 100,000 more votes than were actually cast. In San Diego, poll workers took machines home for unsupervised "sleepovers" before the vote, leaving the equipment vulnerable to tampering. And in Ohio - where, as I recently reported in "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" [RS 1002], dirty tricks may have cost John Kerry the presidency - a government report uncovered large and unexplained discrepancies in vote totals recorded by machines in Cuyahoga County.
Even worse, many electronic machines don't produce a paper record that can be recounted when equipment malfunctions - an omission that practically invites malicious tampering. "Every board of election has staff members with the technological ability to fix an election," Ion Sancho, an election supervisor in Leon County, Florida, told me. "Even one corrupt staffer can throw an election. Without paper records, it could happen under my nose and there is no way I'd ever find out about it. With a few key people in the right places, it would be possible to throw a presidential election."
Chris Hood remembers the day in August 2002 that he began to question what was really going on in Georgia. An African-American whose parents fought for voting rights in the South during the 1960s, Hood was proud to be working as a consultant for Diebold Election Systems, helping the company promote its new electronic voting machines. During the presidential election two years earlier, more than 94,000 paper ballots had gone uncounted in Georgia - almost double the national average - and Secretary of State Cathy Cox was under pressure to make sure every vote was recorded properly.
Hood had been present in May 2002, when officials with Cox's office signed a contract with Diebold - paying the company a record $54 million to install 19,000 electronic voting machines across the state. At a restaurant inside Atlanta's Marriott Hotel, he noticed the firm's CEO, Walden O'Dell, checking Diebold's stock price on a laptop computer every five minutes, waiting for a bounce from the announcement.
Hood wondered why Diebold, the world's third-largest seller of ATMs, had been awarded the contract. The company had barely completed its acquisition of Global Election Systems, a voting-machine firm that owned the technology Diebold was promising to sell Georgia. And its bid was the highest among nine competing vendors. Whispers within the company hinted that a fix was in.
"The Diebold executives had a news conference planned on the day of the award," Hood recalls, "and we were instructed to stay in our hotel rooms until just hours before the announcement. They didn't want the competitors to know and possibly file a protest" about the lack of a fair bidding process. It certainly didn't hurt that Diebold had political clout: Cox's predecessor as secretary of state, Lewis Massey, was now a lobbyist for the company.
The problem was, Diebold had only five months to install the new machines - a "very narrow window of time to do such a big deployment," Hood notes. The old systems stored in warehouses had to be replaced with new equipment; dozens of state officials and poll workers had to be trained in how to use the touch-screen machines. "It was pretty much an impossible task," Hood recalls. There was only one way, he adds, that the job could be done in time - if "the vendor had control over the entire environment." That is precisely what happened. In late July, to speed deployment of the new machines, Cox quietly signed an agreement with Diebold that effectively privatized Georgia's entire electoral system. The company was authorized to put together ballots, program machines and train poll workers across the state - all without any official supervision. "We ran the election," says Hood. "We had 356 people that Diebold brought into the state. Diebold opened and closed the polls and tabulated the votes. Diebold convinced Cox that it would be best if the company ran everything due to the time constraints, and in the interest of a trouble-free election, she let us do it."
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