Some Bugs in the Ballot

Wired News has a very comprehensive and very scary report on electronic voting systems in the US. The stories about lost votes in recent primary elections have been reported (links to some are on the Wired pages) but there is much more going on behind the scenes. Bev Harris, "a 53-year-old mother of five and a self-employed publicist", has uncovered an amazing number of errors in elections going back almost ten years. She was also able to access an unprotected server from one of the companies that builds and runs electronic voting machines containing data and source code.

Along the way Harris has also found some very disturbing connections between the management of the companies running the voting machines and the politicians whose names are on the electronic ballots.

In many stories about voting machine glitches that Harris found, no follow-up news stories explained what went wrong with the machines. Where explanations did occur, officials blamed poll-worker error or "minor programming flaws," with the caveat that the glitches didn’t affect the outcome of the election, making them irrelevant.

Election officials, most of whom have no technical background, relied on the vendors’ claims that their systems were fine. In many cases, it was usually the vendor who stepped in to fix the machines and provide an explanation to feed reporters. The situation highlighted a concern among critics that election officials had become increasingly dependent on voting companies to run their elections.

In fact, the relationship between vendors and election officials has raised questions about conflicts of interest around the country. Manufacturers vying for million-dollar contracts have sponsored national and state conferences for election officials and courted some officials with expensive meals, cruises and tickets to concerts and sporting events, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. They also hire former state employees to ease their way through contract negotiations and certification processes.

The article has many examples of errors in systems made by various companies as well as the findings of computer science professionals who are very critical of the lack of security and verification in the electronic voting process. Plain and simple, the loopholes in the system are nothing but invitations for fraud. This person has it exactly right.

"I don’t think there’s any vast right-wing conspiracy to control the vote," said Allen, the publisher of Harris’ book. "All I know is that voting fraud in this country has a long tradition. If there’s enough money in it and it can be done with a reasonable certainty of getting away with it, it will be done."

Bottom line, this is one more example of how we rely too heavily on technology that looks good in the brochure but in reality is not ready for prime time. We also trust the people running the computers far more than we should (and that’s coming from a certified techie). As I said, this is a scary story that people need to pay attention to. Take the time to read the whole article.