When Even the Illusion is Gone:
"Black Box" Voting and Faith-Based
- by Adam Levenstein
"I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year."
--Walden O'Dell, CEO, Diebold Inc.
"It's not he who casts the votes that matters--but he who counts the votes."
"There were security holes all over it."
--Roxanne Jekot, computer programmer who examined Diebold's voting machines
In the United States, we don't have much in the way of democracy. Every four years, we go to the polls, and select which white man from one of our two corporate-backed parties we want to be President. Then - lest our votes directly go towards the individual in question - faceless electors who our votes actually go to meet and they vote in the actual President.
Beyond that, every two years we select Congressional representatives; sometimes some people of color and women manage to slip in, but it's almost always from the same two parties.
In 2000, everything changed. Recount after recount in Florida yielded differing results, none establishing a clear majority. The nation was riveted; which group of faceless electors was going to vote in the President? Democrat Al Gore's electors, or George W. Bush's electors? Eventually, the Supreme Court stepped in and told Florida to stop counting the votes; the last recount, which showed Bush in the lead by the slimmest of margins. Compelled by the order, life-long Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris faithfully certified the results, with George W. Bush the winner.
Immediately after the recounts started, explanations flew. Initially, the confusion was due to ill-conceived "butterfly" ballots that voters could potentially misalign. Then, hanging pieces of paper called "chad" were to blame. We weren't given the option to decide that maybe, just maybe, the thousands of African-American voters systematically removed from the polls under the guise of "making sure felons didn't vote" might have had something to do with the problem.
After the election was "settled" by the Supreme Court, discussion shifted to the antiquate voting technology; Florida, like many other states, relied on hole-punched paper ballots that were then tabulated by machine. How, people wondered, could we get an accurate, quick count of the votes that would never result in recount after recount?
Enter electronic voting. On a basic level, it makes perfect sense; rather than messing with paper ballots, mismatched holes, hanging chad, and the like, the voter simply touches the name of the candidate on the screen, and the vote is counted on an internal memory module. The memory modules from the machines are then taken to a central location, where the votes are tabulated. Soon enough, firms across the nation were lining up to offer states electronic voting systems.
The inherent problem of electronic voting is that there's no paper trail; there is no way to independently verify whether the votes were counted correctly or went to the right candidate. The machines don't even print a paper receipt-which would allow the voter, at least, to verify who they voted for.
Further adding to the problems, there is no way to evaluate the systems themselves; Diebold's systems, proprietary in nature, are not accessible to the public. To establish itself, Diebold permitted a select few to look at their systems and source code. Before examining these systems, these individuals had to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements, insuring that they could reveal little about the way the system works.
The few details that have emerged show that, at best, the Diebold system has some major security flaws. Computer experts, including programmers and technical architects, have found numerous flaws all over the system. Roxanne Jekot, a computer programmer with 20 years experience, was able to do a line-by-line code review of the system. She claims that much of it "looked like the homework my first-year students might have turned in." Further studies sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and the state of Maryland have numbered the security flaws in the hundreds.
An example of some of these flaws became clear in Georgia, the first state to implement Diebold machines on a state-wide basis for the 2002 election. Many systems malfunctioned, and wound up shut down and inoperable. It is not known how many votes were lost due to machine error. Some locked up during a vote. Numerous memory cards-the modules that store the votes-went missing. Some were not even recovered until after the election was certified.
Perhaps more disturbing were the poll numbers. During this election, not only were various Congressional seats up for reelection, but also the governor, Democrat Roy Barnes, and Democrat Senator Max Cleland. On the eve of the election, Barnes led the polls by about 10 percentage points over challenger Sonny Perdue; after the votes were tabulated, Perdue won by five percentage points. Cleland had been leading challenger Saxby Chambliss by a slim margin, 2-5 percentage points; on election day, Chambliss won by a decisive margin-eight points.
Similar numbers refuting or pushing polls towards the Republicans-came in from across the country where electronic machines were used. It's interesting to note that the leaders of the three major electronic voting providers are major Republican backers; Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold, even went on record to say that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President."
It's not possible, however, to accurately say that voter fraud was committed. Some of the technical aspects seem to indicate that there was; a flag, for example, in the system that allows the change record (the database that stores changes to the main voter tabulation database) to be altered. Election results going against polls. Elections where the Republican candidate mysteriously beat the Democratic candidate by an identical number of votes.
The problem, however, is not that voter fraud has been committed; the problem is that there is no way to tell whether it has been committed. There is no audit trail, no way to recount the ballots or find out how accurate the system is/was. The source code to the system is tightly controlled; were the system Open Source, any errors, security holes, or potential infractions could be found.
The fundamental issue is not the security holes, or the potential fraud; the fundamental problem is that by adopting these machines the state and county governments are privatizing elections. A fundamental concept in free and fair elections is ensuring that the voting process is transparent, auditable, and verifiable. The electronic voting process is none of those.
Instead, the electronic voting scheme is such that a private corporation, whose leadership is very much in favor of one party winning the election, controls the vote collection, tabulation, and ergo the results-without allowing anyone to look at the process, while it is in motion or otherwise, and without any way to go back and see if any votes were lost or miscounted.
Elections are limited in the United States. The system works so that we're limited to who we can vote for, what we can tell them, and how often. The twin parties barely act as parties with different ideas or perspectives; rather, they function as two wings of the Rich White Men Party.
However, voting is one of the few mouthpieces of working people. It is one of the few rights we can still exercise; one of the few ways working people have any amount of say in the goings-on of the government. Yet this right is being taken away in all but name; voting becomes even more of an illusion if there is no way to verify the results.
Adam Levenstein is a co-editor of the new youth journal Left Hook (http://www.lefthook.org) and is active in the Palestine Solidarity Movement in Atlanta. He can be reached here: email@example.com