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Mobtown Beat

The Vote Counters

Computerized Ballot-Counting Systems Under Fire

By Van Smith | Posted 10/30/2002

The recount of the 2000 election in Florida, with its "hanging chads," "butterfly ballots," and "overvoting," made a persuasive case for states to invest in modern voting technology. The trend since, in Maryland and across the country, has been to switch to something Baltimore City voters have been using since 1996: computerized voting, using systems known as direct recording electronics (DRE). No messy ballots with the risk of overvoting, no mechanical or manual counting, just easy-to-use screens and software--and complete ballot secrecy for the voter.

In Maryland, five jurisdictions use DRE systems: Baltimore City and Allegany, Dorchester, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties, which together comprise about 43 percent of the state's electorate. During pre-election testing for the Sept. 10 primaries by University of Maryland researchers, one of the two machines being tested broke down. On Election Day, late-opening polling places and delayed results in Montgomery County were blamed on poor training for election workers unfamiliar with the machines. Nonetheless, the state is committed to the new technology and intends to have it in place statewide by 2006.

"Using DREs in polling places will give Marylanders the opportunity to exercise their right to vote with the same ease, efficiency, and confidence that they now use at the gas pump and the supermarket checkout," Secretary of State John Willis declared last December when DREs were selected for use in four Maryland counties.

Critics, though, say that computerized voting is prone to error and fraud, can't be adequately audited, and is largely implemented by shady voting-machine companies rather than public officials. Rebecca Mercuri, a Bryn Mawr College computer-science professor and software-company CEO who has been studying electronic vote counting for more than a decade, is foremost among the skeptics.

Computerized voting systems "do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated," Mercuri writes in a statement published at her company's Web site in 2001. Election workers' roles become "purely procedural" with no "opportunity to perform bipartisan checks," she adds, and the "election process is thus entrusted to the small group of individuals who program, construct, and maintain the machines."

Mercuri points out that the systems produce no hard-copy ballots tied to particular voters, so manual counts that check for discrepancies from voter intent are impossible. And because it involves the use of proprietary computer code in running the software, computerized voting is open to undetected programming manipulation that could affect the accuracy of the results. Finally, checking the machines for code irregularities or other malfunctions is barred because, as commercial products, the machines are protected under trade-secret agreements.

Taken as a whole, the voting-machine industry is tightly knit and has a decidedly right-wing flavor, according to well-documented research by public-relations executive Bev Harris and Philadelphia journalist Lynn Landes, who question the soundness of putting private-sector partisans in charge of a secretive vote-counting process. The three main firms in the industry--Sequoia Pacific Systems, Election Systems & Software, and Global/Diebold Election Systems--have ties to one another. Election Systems, a Nebraska-based company, is largely owned by a company controlled by the campaign treasurer for conservative U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). It is also connected to the Ahmanson family, a banking empire that bankrolls a Christian-right agenda.

Critics have reason to question the reputation and record of voting-machine vendors. A bribery scheme involving the purchase of Sequoia voting machines (like the ones used on Baltimore City) in Louisiana was uncovered in 1999, and netted a conviction against state elections commissioner Jerry Fowler and Sequoia's exclusive agent, David Philpot. A vice president of Election Systems, which makes absentee-ball0t-counting machines in use in Maryland, received immunity in exchange for his cooperation in a successful bribery case against the Arkansas secretary of state in 1995. Given the taint of bribery surrounding voting-machine companies, Mercuri says, "you have to wonder what's going on" as more and more states purchase DRE systems.

Maryland election officials acknowledge many of Mercuri's key concerns about computer-voting security, but point out that no voting system is foolproof and that the checks and balances built into Maryland's DRE systems provide key benefits while assuring reasonable precautions against fraud.

David Heller, who coordinated the acquisition of DRE systems for the state Administrative Board of Election Laws, explains that computerized voting gives complete ballot secrecy at the expense of complete auditability. Unlike punch-card or optical-scan systems, in which ballots can be traced to the voters who cast them, DRE systems do not provide a full paper trail as a way to determine that the votes counted are the same as the votes intended.

The systems are tested and certified before the election, Heller explains, and sealed to prevent tampering until election day. And the proprietary computer code that runs the voting-machine program can, if questions arise after the election, be checked by elections officials to assure it is the same that was certified for use in the election.

The critics' "questions are valid," Heller says, "and can be asked of any software, but we have taken steps to minimize risks."

Mercuri, though, does not trust the level of care and independence in testing and certifying the machines, and does not believe there are any guarantees against fraudulent tampering.

"There is no auditability, period," asserts Mercuri, "no way to guarantee that those numbers have anything to do at all with the votes people put in the machine. Reprogramming with undetectable nefarious code is unpreventable. And the certification process that is instituted now is not independent. It is just an agency that is paid by the vendors to review their products."

Malfunctions and poor administration have bedeviled computerized voting across the country, but to date there are no proven cases of DRE fraud. "That's not because we know fraud hasn't occurred," Mercuri explains, "but because the machines completely obliterate any trace of it--and the manufacturers don't let us look for it."

"They say, 'Trust us,'" Mercuri says of the voting-machine manufacturers. "It's nothing less than a giant scam being perpetrated on the world's democracies."

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