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Sam Smith: Watching The Count - Recovered History

Watching The Count - Recovered History

By Editor Sam Smith

PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, NOVEMBER 1988 - More than half the ballots cast on Election Day were highly vulnerable to fraud and error according to two reports recently released by the Urban Policy Research Institute and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

These ballots were counted by computerized systems that, according to UPRI, can be affected by "various kinds of threats, error and manipulation." A single person can alter the outcome of any computerized election by tinkering 11 with the computers, vote-counting software or machine readable ballots.

The UPRI report blames the vulnerability on inadequate procedural safeguards and on the vote-tallying systems themselves. The systems often prove to be too complex for local election officials to administer and can conceal evidence of tampering. In addition, they lack audit trails which would permit reconstruction of questionable election results.

There have been law suits in four states, each of which involving vote-counting systems from the same vendor, whose products dominate the market. IBM dropped out of the election computer market after a 1970 election in Los Angeles using punch-card ballots was challenged with allegations of fraud. Today, most election systems, according to the CPSR report, are purchased from small firms, some with just a few employees.

CPSR points out that "elections computer programs are not subject to design or source code inspections by independent auditors outside the vendor, as banking software is." Even if elections officials had access to the source codes, "few would be able to obtain the resources to determine its quality." In fact, CSPR report authors Bob Wilcox and Enk Nilsson suggest that the sloppy way in which some computer programs are created (and in some cases subsequently discarded) makes it difficult for even professionals "to determine if the program is designed correctly." The problem is not theoretical. In 1980, a programming error during the president primary count led California election computers in one county to give 15,000 votes belonging to Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy to Lyndon Larouche and Jerry Brown.

In Gwinnet County, Georgia, the results of a close race were reversed after discovery of a computer hardware error.

In Moline, Illinois, a faulty timing belt slipped intermittently on one card reader, leading to a miscount in which a candidate actually took office and then had to give it up.

And a National Bureau of Standards report lists computer difficulties in 26 recent elections.

The possibilities for accidental or deliberate mischief are legion:

- Punch card ballots can be invalidated by adding an extra punch or two.

- Bogus ballots can be added or removed.

- Punched out dots can fall onto the next ballot in the stack, covering a hole and erasing-a vote.

- Orientation marks on ballots, that tell the computer how to read the ballot, can be misprinted or mispunched.

- Supposedly secret passwords can be leaked, allowing unlawful entry to the system.

- "Trapdoors" can be surreptitiously opened within the system, causing miscounts and then closing themselves with no record that they ever existed.

- "Time bombs" allow a computer to act in a certain way at a certain time, say election day, again with no record, but in this case the practitioner doesn't even have to be present.

- "Trojan horses" do their mischief by hiding inside another program, perhaps one that prints up election results as bar charts. According to UPRI, "Once election officials open the gates by using the bar chart program, the Trojan horse can let out its software soldiers and manipulate the vote-counting procedure, first turning off the computer's record-keeping system or audit trail."

Two Princeton computer scientists reviewed the most common computer vote-tallying system and found the software so poorly designed that it was virtually impossible to guarantee its functions. Another computer scientist called the system "a bucket of worms" with over confusing, badly written instructions, all of which must perfectly for the election results to be properly tallied and reported.

CPSR has come up with a program for improving election accuracy and security. Its recommendations include:

- independent review of software • separation of functions and powers within the election system, so that, for example, ballot creation, elections, and election analysis would be done by different people with different software

- Making sure that citizens and not computer experts run elections.

- Checking ballots for validity before they leave a precinct.

- Reducing or eliminating human interaction with computers on election day.

- A complete record of all elections with an adequate audit trail.


IN A request for a GAO inquiry into the past election, a group of Democratic congressmembers listed these problems:

||| - In Columbus, Ohio, an electronic voting system gave President Bush nearly 4,000 extra votes.

- An electronic tally of a South Florida gambling ballot initiative failed to record thousands of votes.

- In one North Carolina county, more than 4,500 votes were lost because officials mistakenly believed a computer that stored ballots could hold more data that it did.

- In San Francisco, a glitch occurred with voting machines software that resulted in some votes being left uncounted.

- In Florida, there was a substantial drop off in Democratic votes in proportion to voter registration in counties utilizing optical scan machines that was apparently not present in counties using other mechanisms.

The House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff has received numerous reports from Youngstown, Ohio that voters who attempted to cast a vote for John Kerry on electronic voting machines saw that their votes were instead recorded as votes for George W. Bush. In South Florida, Congressman Wexler's staff received numerous reports from voters in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties that they attempted to select John Kerry but George Bush appeared on the screen. CNN has reported that a dozen voters in six states, particularly Democrats in Florida, reported similar problems. This was among over one thousand such problems reported.

Excessively long lines were a frequent problem throughout the nation in Democratic precincts, particularly in Florida and Ohio. In one Ohio voting precinct serving students from Kenyon College, some voters were required to wait more than eight hours to vote. |||


NOV 9, 2004

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