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The Theft of Your Vote Is Just a Chip Away

The Theft of Your Vote Is Just a Chip Away

By Thom Hartmann
July 25, 2003

Are computerized voting machines a wide-open back door to massive voting fraud? The discussion has moved from the Internet to CNN, to UK newspapers, and the pages of The New York Times. People are cautiously beginning to connect the dots, and the picture that seems to be emerging is troubling.

"A defective computer chip in the county's optical scanner misread ballots Tuesday night and incorrectly tallied a landslide victory for Republicans," announced the Associated Press in a story on Nov. 7, just a few days after the 2002 election. The story added, "Democrats actually won by wide margins."

Republicans would have carried the day had not poll workers become suspicious when the computerized vote-reading machines said the Republican candidate was trouncing his incumbent Democratic opponent in the race for County Commissioner. The poll workers were close enough to the electorate – they were part of the electorate – to know their county overwhelmingly favored the Democratic incumbent.

A quick hand recount of the optical-scan ballots showed that the Democrat had indeed won, even though the computerized ballot-scanning machine kept giving the race to the Republican. The poll workers brought the discrepancy to the attention of the County Clerk, who notified the voting machine company.

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"A new computer chip was flown to Snyder [Texas] from Dallas," County Clerk Lindsey told the Associated Press. With the new chip installed, the computer then verified that the Democrat had won the election. In another Texas anomaly, Republican state Senator Jeff Wentworth won his race with exactly 18,181 votes, Republican Carter Casteel won her state House seat with exactly 18,181 votes, and conservative Judge Danny Scheel won his seat with exactly 18,181 votes – all in Comal County. Apparently, however, no poll workers in Comal County thought to ask for a new chip.

Startling Results

The Texas incidents happened with computerized machines reading and then tabulating paper or punch-card ballots. In Georgia and Florida, where paper had been totally replaced by touch-screen machines in many to most precincts during 2001 and 2002, the 2002 election produced some of the nation's most startling results.

USA Today reported on Nov. 3, 2002, "In Georgia, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows Democratic Sen. Max Cleland with a 49%-to-44% lead over Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss." Cox News Service, based in Atlanta, reported just after the election (Nov. 7) that, "Pollsters may have goofed" because "Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland by a margin of 53 to 46 percent. The Hotline, a political news service, recalled a series of polls Wednesday showing that Chambliss had been ahead in none of them."

Just as amazing was the Georgia governor's race. "Similarly," the Zogby polling organization reported on Nov. 7, "no polls predicted the upset victory in Georgia of Republican Sonny Perdue over incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes. Perdue won by a margin of 52 to 45 percent. The most recent Mason Dixon Poll had shown Barnes ahead 48 to 39 percent last month with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points."

Almost all of the votes in Georgia were recorded on the new touchscreen computerized voting machines, which produced no paper trail whatsoever. And nobody thought to ask for a new chip, although it was noted on Nov. 8 by the Atlanta Constitution-Journal that in downtown Atlanta's predominantly Democratic Fulton County "election officials said Thursday that memory cards from 67 electronic voting machines had been misplaced, so ballots cast on those machines were left out of previously announced vote totals." Officials added that all but 11 of the memory cards were subsequently found and recorded.

Similarly, as the San Jose Mercury News reported in a Jan. 23, 2003 editorial titled "Gee Whiz, Voter Fraud?" "In one Florida precinct last November, votes that were intended for the Democratic candidate for governor ended up for Gov. Jeb Bush, because of a misaligned touchscreen. How many votes were miscast before the mistake was found will never be known, because there was no paper audit." ("Misaligned" touchscreens also caused 18 known machines in Dallas to register Republican votes when Democratic screen-buttons were pushed: it's unknown how many others weren't noticed.)

Apparently, nobody thought to ask for new chips in Florida, either.

In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reported just a few days before the election (Oct. 30, 2002) that, "Dramatic political developments since Sen. Paul Wellstone's death Friday have had little effect on voters' leanings in the U.S. Senate race, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll taken Monday night. Wellstone's likely replacement on the ballot, former Vice President Walter Mondale, leads Republican Norm Coleman by 47 to 39 percent – close to where the race stood two weeks ago when Wellstone led Coleman 47 to 41 percent."

When the computerized machines were done counting the vote a few days later, however, Coleman had beat Mondale by 50 to 47 percent. If Mondale had asked for new chips, would it have made a difference? We'll never know.

One state where Republicans did ask for a new chip was Alabama. Fox News reported on Nov. 8, 2002 that initial returns from across the state showed that Democratic incumbent Gov. Don Siegelman had won the governor's race. But, overnight, "Baldwin County took center stage when election officials released results Tuesday night showing Siegelman with 19,070 votes – enough for a narrow victory statewide. Later, they recounted and reduced Siegelman's tally to 12,736 votes – enough to give Riley the victory."

What produced the sudden loss of about 6,000 votes? According to the Fox report: "Probate Judge Adrian Johns, a member of the county canvassing board, blamed the initial, higher number on 'a programming glitch in the software' that tallies the votes." All parties were not satisfied with that explanation, however. Fox added: "The governor claimed results were changed after poll watchers left."

It turns out the "glitch in the software" in Alabama was discovered by the Republican National Committee's regional director Kelley McCullough, who, according to a story in the conservative Daily Standard, "logged onto the county's municipal website and confirmed that [incumbent Democratic Governor] Siegelman had actually only received 12,736 votes – not the 19,070 the Associated Press projected for him. A computer glitch had caused the error. The erroneous tally would have put Siegelman on top by 3,582 votes, but the corrected one gave Riley a 2,752-vote edge."

As the Murdoch-owned Daily Standard noted, "If it hadn't been for one woman, the Republican National Committee's regional director Kelley McCullough, things might have gone terribly wrong for [Republican Gubernatorial candidate] Riley."

Similarly, in Davison County, South Dakota, the Democratic election auditor noticed the machines double counting votes (it's not noted for which side) and had a "new chip" brought in.

Hacking Democracy?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of '00 and '02 election irregularities, as reported by Either the system by which democracy exists broke that November evening, or was hacked, or American voters became suddenly more fickle than at any time since Truman beat Dewey.

Maybe it's true that the citizens of Georgia simply decided that incumbent Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a wildly popular war veteran, was, as Republican TV ads suggested, too unpatriotic to remain in the Senate, even though his Republican challenger, Saxby Chambliss, had sat out the Vietnam war with a medical deferment.

Maybe, in the final two days of the race, those voters who'd pledged themselves to Georgia's popular incumbent Governor Roy Barnes suddenly and inexplicably decided to switch to Republican challenger Sonny Perdue.

Maybe George W. and Jeb Bush, Alabama's new Republican governor Bob Riley, and a small but congressionally decisive handful of other long-shot Republican candidates around the country really did win those states where conventional wisdom and straw polls showed them losing in the last few election cycles, but computer controlled voting or ballot-reading machines showed them winning.

Perhaps, after a half-century of fine-tuning exit polling to such a science that it's now used to verify if elections are clean in Third World countries, it really did suddenly become inaccurate in the United States in the past few years and just won't work here anymore. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that the sudden rise of inaccurate exit polls happened around the same time corporate-programmed, computer-controlled, modem-capable voting machines began recording and tabulating ballots.

But if any of this is true, there's not much of a paper trail from the voters' hand to prove it.

You'd think in an open democracy that the government – answerable to all its citizens rather than a handful of corporate officers and stockholders – would program, repair and control the voting machines. You'd think the computers that handle our cherished ballots would be open and their software and programming available for public scrutiny. You'd think there would be a paper trail of the actual hand-cast vote, which could be followed and audited if there was evidence of voting fraud or if exit polls disagreed with computerized vote counts.

You'd be wrong.

Upsets In Nebraska

It's entirely possible that Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel – who left his job as head of an electronic voting machine company to run as a long-shot candidate for the U.S. Senate – honestly won all of his elections.

Back when Hagel first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996, his own company's computer-controlled voting machines showed he'd won stunning and unexpected victories in both the primaries and the general election. The Washington Post (1/13/1997) said Hagel's "Senate victory against an incumbent Democratic governor was the major Republican upset in the November election." According to Bev Harris, author of "Black Box Voting," Hagel won virtually every demographic group, including many largely black communities that had never before voted Republican. Hagel was the first Republican in 24 years to win a Senate seat in Nebraska.

Six years later Hagel ran again, this time against Democrat Charlie Matulka in 2002, and won in a landslide. As his Website says, Hagel "was re-elected to his second term in the United States Senate on November 5, 2002 with 83% of the vote. That represents the biggest political victory in the history of Nebraska." What the site fails to disclose is that about 80 percent of those votes were counted by computer-controlled voting machines put in place by the company affiliated with Hagel: built by that company; programmed by that company; chips supplied by that company.

"This is a big story, bigger than Watergate ever was," said Hagel's Democratic opponent in the 2002 Senate race, Charlie Matulka ( "They say Hagel shocked the world, but he didn't shock me."

Is Matulka the sore loser the Hagel campaign paints him as, or is he democracy's proverbial canary in the mineshaft? Between them, Hagel and Chambliss' victories sealed Republican control of the Senate. Odds are both won fair and square, the American way, using huge piles of corporate money to carpet-bomb voters with television advertising. But either the appearance or the possibility of impropriety in an election casts a shadow over American democracy.

"The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which all other rights are protected," wrote Thomas Paine over 200 years ago. "To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.."

That slavery, according to Hagel's last opponent Charlie Matulka, is at our doorstep. "They can take over our country without firing a shot," Matulka said, "just by taking over our election systems."

Revolution by control of computer chips? Is that really possible in the USA?

Who's Counting the Votes?

"Imagine it's Election Day 2004," says U.S. Congressman Rush Holt, also a scientist with a Ph.D. in physics who knows more than a little bit about both politics and computers. "You enter your local polling place and go to cast your vote on a brand-new touchscreen voting machine. The screen says your vote has been counted. As you exit the voting booth, however, you begin to wonder. How do I know if the machine actually recorded my vote?"

It's a question that probably hasn't occurred to many Americans, even those who used the touchscreen machines particularly notable in states where there were "upsets" and "glitches" in the 2002 election. But it occurred to Congressman Holt, and after looking at the law, the voting machines and the companies that produce them, he concluded that, "The fact is, you don't [know if the machine actually recorded your vote]."

Bev Harris has studied the situation in depth and thinks both Congressman Holt and candidate Matulka may be on to something. The company with ties to Hagel even threatened her with legal action when she went public about the company having built the machines that counted Hagel's landslide votes.

In the meantime, exit-polling organizations have quietly gone out of business, and the news arms of the huge multinational corporations that own our networks are suggesting the days of exit polls are over. Virtually none were reported in 2002, creating an odd and unsettling silence that caused unease for the many voters who had come to view exit polls as proof of the integrity of their election systems.

As all this comes to light, many citizens and even a few politicians are wondering if it's a good idea for corporations to be so involved in the guts of our voting systems. The whole idea of a democratic republic was to create a common institution (the government itself) owned by its citizens, answerable to its citizens and authorized to exist and continue existing solely "by the consent of the governed."

However, the recent political trend has moved us in the opposite direction, with governments turning administration of our commons over to corporations answerable only to profits. The result is the enrichment of corporations and the appearance that democracy in America has started to resemble its parody in banana republics.

Further frustrating those concerned with the sanctity of our vote, the corporations selling and licensing voting machines and voting software often claim Fourth Amendment rights of privacy and the right to hide their "trade secrets" – how their voting software works and what controls are built into it – from both the public and the government itself.

Secret Software

"If you want to make Coca-Cola and have trade secrets, that's fine," says Harvard's Rebecca Mercuri, Ph.D., one of the nation's leading experts on voting machines. "But don't try to claim trade secrets when you're handling our votes."

The window into who owns whom among the various companies – most of which are not publicly traded – is equally opaque. One voting machine company was partially funded at startup by wealthy Republican philanthropists who belong to an organization that believes the Bible instead of the Constitution should govern America. Another is partly owned by a defense contractor. Even the reincarnation of a company that helped Enron cook their books has gotten into the act.

"There are several issues here," says reporter Lynn Landis, who has written extensively about voting machines. "First, there's the issue that the Voting Rights Act requires that poll watchers be able to observe the vote. But with computerized voting machines, your vote vanishes into a computer and can't be observed."

To solve this, many are calling for a return to paper ballots that are hand-counted. It may be slower, but temp-help precinct workers may even cost less than electronic voting machines (which are a multi-billion-dollar boon for corporate suppliers), and will ensure that real humans are tabulating the vote.

"Second," says Landis, "there's the issue of who controls the information. Of all the functions of government that should not be privatized, handling our votes is at the top of the list. This is the core of democracy, and must be open, transparent, and available to both the public and our politicians of all parties for full and open inspection."

Although Rush Holt is suggesting there be stringent standards, he hasn't gone so far as to say corporations shouldn't process our votes. But why not? Most government functions – from our courts to our fire departments – run fairly smoothly, despite carping from the extreme right wing. Increasingly, people across America are demanding that – like in other democracies around the world – our system of voting should be publicly owned.

Another point Dr. Rebecca Mercuri raises is that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – passed after the 2000 election – calls for the President to appoint, as the Act states, "with the advice of the Senate," members to "an independent entity, the Election Assistance Commission." The commission is then to create "the Election Assistance Commission Standards Board, the Election Assistance Commission Board of Advisors ... and the Technical Guidelines Development Committee" to establish standards and oversee compliance of the law by voting machine companies.

"But the commission has not yet been established," says Mercuri, even though billions in federal dollars have been distributed under HAVA for states to buy electronic voting machines and license their software from private corporations. "As a result," Mercuri says, "there are currently no meaningful federal standards for voting machines. Many of the machines used in 2002 were built to industry guidelines that many question and were established in 1990."

And those standards are problematic. In the course of researching "Black Box Voting," Harris did a Google search on one of the voting machine companies, Diebold Election Systems, and found it maintained an open FTP site on the internet apparently through the 2002 election. In it, she located computer code used to tabulate elections and, apparently, actual vote count files that could be downloaded or even replaced by any visiting hacker.

A website for the New Zealand news publication The Scoop has published Diebold's files on the Internet, producing lively discussions among computer enthusiasts and scientists who have apparently (and perhaps unlawfully) cracked the company's various codes.

The Scoop also performed a statistical analysis comparing American polls and computer-controlled voting machine results. In many states there were no variations. In a few, however, they found that "the Republican Party experienced a pronounced last minute swing in its favour of between 4 and 16 points. Remarkably this last minute swing appears to have been concentrated in its effects in critical Senate races (Georgia and Minnesota) where [the Republican Party] secured its complete control of Congress."

Purging Voter Rolls

While corporate bungles or the potential for outright vote fraud are a concern of many opposed to electronic voting machines, another issue of concern is the concentration of voter rolls in the hands of partisan politicians instead of civil servants.

In most states, local precincts or counties maintain their own voter rolls. Florida, however, had gone to the trouble before the 2000 election to consolidate all its voter rolls at the state level, and put them into the custody and control of the state's elected Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who was also the chairman of the Florida campaign to elect George W. Bush.

As described in disturbing detail in the documentary "Unprecedented" and in Greg Palast's book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," Harris spent millions to hire a Texas company to clean up the Florida list by purging it of all convicted felons – using a list of felons who lived in the State of Texas.

One of the legacies of slavery is that a large number of African Americans share the same or similar names, and sure enough, when the Texas felon list was compared with the Florida voter list over 94,000 matches or near-matches were found. Those registered Florida voters – about half of them African Americans (who generally vote Democratic) – with names identical or even similar to Texas felons were deleted from the Florida voter rolls, and turned away from the polls when they tried to vote in 2000 and in 2002.

Now, under HAVA, states across the nation are consolidating their voter lists and handing them over to Harris's various peers to be cleaned and maintained.

Another concern is Internet voting, since it's impossible to ensure its accuracy. Imagine if all the time a voting machine was being used, it also had its back door open and an unlimited number of technicians and hackers could manipulate its innards before, during and after the vote.

Activists suggest this is one of the reasons it's dangerous that so many electronic voting machines today are connected to company-access modems, but it's an even stronger argument against the very core of democracy – the vote – being handled out in the public of cyberspace.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon is moving ahead with plans to have a private corporation conduct Internet voting for overseas GIs in 2004, and many fear it'll be used as a beta test for more widespread Internet voting across the nation. While many Americans think the ability to vote from home or office over the computer would be wonderfully convenient, the results could be disastrous: even the CIA hasn't been able to prevent hackers from penetrating parts of its computer systems attached to the Internet.

Votes Are Sacred

On most levels, privatization is only a "small sin" against democracy. Turning a nation's or community's water, septic, roadway, prisons, airwaves or health care commons over to private corporations has so far demonstrably degraded the quality of life for average citizens and enriched a few of the most powerful campaign contributors, but it hasn't been the end of democracy.

Many citizens believe, however, that turning the programming and maintenance of voting over to corporations that can share their profits openly with politicians (or, like Hagel, become the politicians), puts democracy itself at peril.

A growing number of Americans are saying our votes are too sacred to reside only on "chips," and that it's critical that we kick corporations out of the commons of our voting, and that we make sure we have a human-verifiable vote paper trail that goes all the way back to the original hand of the original voter.

If there are chips involved in the voting process, these democracy advocates say, government civil service employees who are subject to adversarial oversight by both parties must program them in an open-source fashion, and in a way that produces a voter-verified paper trail.

Anything less, and our democracy may vanish as quickly as a network of modem-connected election-counting computers can reboot.


Thom Hartmann is a nationally syndicated daily talk show host and the author of "Unequal Protection" and "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," among other books. This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint in print, email, blog or web media so long as this credit is attached and the title remains the same.

© Scoop Media

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