How They Could Steal the Election This Time | The Nation


How They Could Steal the Election This Time

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Ronnie Dugger wrote the definitive warning essay about the dangers of computerized vote-counting in The New Yorker of November 7, 1988. Research support was provided by The Nation Institute. Dugger wishes to acknowledge the special assistance of Frances Mendenhall, Pokey Anderson, Peter Neumann, Rebecca Mercuri, Roxanne Jekot and David Jefferson, and his debt to hundreds of other reporters whose work cannot be properly credited here.

'It's Really a Matter of Trust'

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Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of The Politician, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and other books and articles, the...

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Confident, friendly, but officious, Jesse Durazo, the registrar of voters of Santa Clara County in the heart of the Silicon Valley, is typical of hundreds of local election officials who berate "the academics." This past spring, despite dire warnings from Professors Neumann of SRI and Dill of Stanford, Durazo led his county into buying 5,500 of the Sequoia AVC Edge DREs at $3,000 each ($20 million, figuring in everything). The anteroom of his county election headquarters is festooned with cheery signs such as one saying Voting Just Got Easier. He is delighted that DREs will facilitate voting by those who speak a foreign language (including Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese).

Durazo said that the AVC had first been approved by the federal government (which is not correct) and then certified by the California secretary of state. He said that providing a voter-verified ballot would open the way to "unlimited error," while computer error, in contrast, can be "quantified." As for Trojan horses smuggling in corrupt instructions, he said in a confident tone, "I don't have those fears." Stealing votes in the computers is next to impossible, he insisted, because local ballots are set up at the last minute, there are a large number of races and ballot initiatives in any one election, and the order of the candidates' positions on the ballots is rotated in different precincts.

The three sets of all the votes, kept in the computer, provide the recount, he said. Are those not just copies of each other, automatically made? Durazo exclaimed in high dudgeon: "It's a redundant perfection!... It starts with the premise that the information in the system is correct."

Alfred Gonzales, Durazo's Filipino outreach specialist for voters who speak Tagalog, demonstrated the AVC, a sign on the top of which said Try It Out Today. No More Punchcards! I voted on it and asked Gonzales how I knew for sure that my vote would be counted. "Because it will be registered in the machine, saved in the hard drive, and put on a cartridge," he said. "At the end of the day it will be in the printout of the total." How did he know the machine would do that? "Because it has been federally certified!" he said. "There is fool-proof security." Well, one more thing, I asked. There's no ballot--what if you need a recount? "It's really a matter of trusting the machine," Gonzales said. Patting the AVC gently, he intoned with pride, "It's really a matter of trust."

"These companies are basically saying 'trust us,'" Rebecca Mercuri told the New York Times. "Why should anybody trust them? That's not the way democracy is supposed to work." Douglas Kellner, a leader on the New York City Board of Elections, exclaimed at a meeting of computer specialists in Berkeley this past spring, "I think the word 'trust' ought to be banned from election administration!" Dr. Avi Rubin, computer science professor and technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, recently testified before the federal Election Assistance Commission, "The vendors, and many election officials, such as those in Maryland and Georgia, continue to insist that the machines are perfectly secure. I cannot fathom the basis for their claims. I do not know of a single computer security expert who would testify that these machines are secure."

Mercuri wrote in her dissertation on vote-counting in 2001 that "security flaws (such as Trojan horse attacks)...are possible in all of the computer-based voting systems" and that providing thorough examinations of source code and other circuits for DREs that vary from municipality to municipality "is a Herculean task--one that is likely not to be affordable, even if it were accomplishable."

Not all the scientists agree. Michael Shamos of Carnegie-Mellon, who once warned that computerized vote-counting is highly vulnerable to fraud, now takes the position that "the issue is not whether voting systems are absolutely secure, but whether they present barriers sufficiently formidable to give us confidence in the integrity of our elections."

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