Re-Stealing the Election?

Re-Stealing the Election?

A landslide of letters overwhelmed our mailbox in response to Ronnie Dugger’s August 16/23


A landslide of letters overwhelmed our mailbox in response to Ronnie Dugger’s August 16/23 “How They Could Steal the Election This Time,” about the problems of computerized voting machines. Calling the article “excellent” and “chilling,” readers were “disheartened” and “angered.” “Goodbye, democracy!” declared one. A few suggested we all vote absentee to be sure of being hand-counted. One reader directed us to, and another warned new registrants to check that they really are registered. David Morton of Phoenix declared that Dugger’s article “should be required reading for every voter in America.”   –The Editors

San Francisco

While I strongly agree with Ronnie Dugger’s concern over the possibilities of election fraud this November, I was disappointed that he did not delve more deeply into the root cause of the problem–namely, a decentralized election bureaucracy that leaves voting administration up to more than 3,000 counties scattered across the nation, with few national standards, uniformity or oversight.

Those concerned about safeguarding the vote should ask themselves: Why is it that countries like Belgium, India and Brazil can deploy computerized/touch-screen voting without the conflict and controversy it has produced here? The answer is that these countries have national election commissions that create uniform standards for equipment as well as competency of election administrators and that oversee the development of software, hardware and procedures to make sure that the equipment is the best it can be.

The United States has no counterpart to a national elections commission, although the Election Assistance Commission, created by the Help America Vote Act, has the potential to play such a role if advocates begin pushing for it. It is vitally important.

Center for Voting and Democracy
Fixing Elections

Washington, DC

Ronnie Dugger’s statement regarding the stance of the League of Women Voters on the voter-verified paper trail (VVPT) is inaccurate. We have not “switched sides” on the issue. We revised our stance. We did not reverse it. At our national convention in June, the delegate body adopted a resolution that revised the LWVUS stance on voting machines as follows:

“In order to ensure integrity and voter confidence in elections, the LWVUS supports the implementation of voting systems and procedures that are: secure, accurate, recountable, and accessible.”

Each voting system should be looked at on a case-by-case basis to insure that it meets each of these four criteria. The League of Women Voters neither supports nor opposes any type of technology per se, such as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines, VVPT or optical scan.

President, League of Women Voters, US


It is pure science fiction to assert, as does Ronnie Dugger, that voting system vendors could program their machines to falsify outcomes “invisibly.” Machines are tested, and if tampering has occurred it can be found. If the machines have been altered, forensic examination can detect the alteration. Dugger fails to mention that DRE machines have been used in the United States for more than twenty-five years without a single verified incident in which the outcome of an election was altered by tampering.

Dugger misquotes me as having said that “computerized vote-counting is highly vulnerable to fraud.” I wrote many years ago, and still believe, that punch-card voting, not DRE voting, was vulnerable to fraud.

His most basic error, however, is in urging that paper systems are safer than electronic ones. Since 1852, the New York Times has published more than 4,000 articles on paper ballot fraud in the United States. Paper is not safe. It may be familiar, but it is the principal tool of election fraud in this country and always has been. The answer is not to return to paper but to implement safeguards to assure the public that the sorts of machinations Dugger imagines are not possible in practice.


Westpoint, Ind.

It is trivially easy to add a few evil lines of code to the voting machine program such that it would (1) become active only on the date of an election and thus be undetectable on any prior test runs, and (2) be independent of the relative positions of candidates on the face of the ballot. Number 1 is self-explanatory, so I go to number 2. To skew the vote toward, say, a Republican candidate, all it takes is the addition of a few short lines of code to the machine’s source code. Then, for each vote tallied, if it is for the Republican, it would be counted for the Republican, but if it is for the Democrat, it would generate a random number and tally every fourth or fifth vote, for example, for the Republican candidate. Or, if you want to get more sophisticated, you could toss a certain percentage of Democratic votes to the Republican candidate, and another small percentage to some other candidate (randomize the “gift”) and disburse it to other parties with candidates on the ballot–Green, Independent, Libertarian, etc.

It really isn’t rocket science. A simple tiny addition of code that, on the sly and only on Election Day, tosses a few illegitimate votes toward a favored party or candidate, or away from a disfavored party or candidate, is simple. Since the source is secret, it cannot be spotted. Even when the system is auditable by state authorities, so what? You provide them with legitimate code while you load the ever-so-slightly altered code into the machines. This sort of thing can also be hard-coded into integrated circuit chips, with no audit possible.

Besides a voter-verifiable paper trail, there should also be a required, automatic and random manual recount on a randomly selected subset of voting machines after polls close. This way, no state or company official could know where and when a voting machine’s votes will be checked. Fraud should be dealt with this way, rather than by calls for a recount.


Louisville, Colo.

Ronnie Dugger has written an excellent piece on the dangers of electronic voting but omits or understates a few points that would further strengthen his argument.

First, he focuses heavily on the problem of fraud and largely ignores the problem of honest programming error. There have been many incidents of voting computers miscounting, caught only because the results were ludicrous. One wonders how many miscounts happened that were too small to notice.

Like the potential for fraud, honest error underscores the need for basic accounting procedures in vote-tabulating because, as with any counting process, there must be at least two separate counting methodologies to insure accuracy. Financial institutions, businesses, even ordinary people checking their bank statement follow this basic rule. Only the election industry considers it superfluous.

Second, Dugger doesn’t emphasize strongly enough that even if electronic voting software were open to public scrutiny, computer security experts would have difficulty finding maliciously implanted code. Voting software code is millions of lines long, so discovering bad code is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Also, implanted “Trojan horses” can erase all trace of themselves, rendering them undetectable. The sanctity of an election should not depend on the word of a few techno-experts rather than ordinary citizens.

Here in Boulder County, election officials were already committed to spending millions of dollars on DRE voting equipment (lacking transparency and verifiability) last year until citizens mobilized an outpouring of opposition. Local leaders of the Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Greens sent written statements opposing the purchase of touch-screen voting equipment. Citizens for Verifiable Voting suggested leasing optical scanners in conjunction with statistically significant hand-counting for confirmation. Unfortunately, the optical scanning equipment Boulder County purchased doesn’t allow confirming hand counts, so we’re stuck (mis)trusting the software.

Finally, I’d love to hear Dugger’s thoughts on why so many government election professionals are so unapologetically sold on the electronic voting snake oil, which is unreliable, inaccurate and inherently lacking in transparency and verifiability.



Cambridge, Mass.

I celebrate Steven Hill’s work for proportional and instant-runoff voting. Here, however, he celebrates an emerging disaster for democracy worldwide. Giving governments centralized control over computerized vote-counting invites the destruction of democracy everywhere it happens. People abroad who have turned over their vote-counting to their government’s central programmers are gradually realizing that they are turning over their democratic power to the government itself. I am now investigating computerized vote-counting abroad and invite people who know about that (or can report serious situations here on November 2) to e-mail me at [email protected].

In May in Washington, Kay Maxwell, speaking officially for the League of Women Voters, told the Election Assistance Commission that “the paper trail system doesn’t make sense” for the November 2 election. After a revolt in the chapters and a petition signed by 800 members, in June at the League’s national convention, it endorsed “recountable” voting systems. Before I wrote my article, I’d seen a League press release denying that there had been a switch, but, trustworthy recountability being the exact characteristic the voter-made paper trail provides, I ignored that release. The League switched sides whether or not Maxwell denies it.

I am surprised by the uncivil tone of Michael Shamos’s letter. Everyone I respect who knows him well regards him as an honorable scientist. He says I misquoted him when I reported, not in quotation marks, that he “once warned that computerized vote-counting is highly vulnerable to fraud.” I did not misquote, but readers may judge for themselves. In an interview for my New Yorker article of November 7, 1988, when the Votomatic punch-card system was dominant but DREs were coming into use, among passages about the possibility of fixing national elections in computerized vote-counting, Shamos, who had three degrees in computer science from Yale, denied that a large number of people would have to be involved in a fix. “One. One person,” he said.

The way things are going, a national mechanism exists that could be manipulated by anybody, from a single individual to a nationwide conspiracy…. the mechanism is there to make it easy…. here’s what we do. Working in a company headquarters, I’m writing some election software, which will be sent by Federal Express to jurisdictions in executable object code. I’m going to program this thing…to trade some votes, take them from other parties and dump them into the party that I want to win. So all the totals [of total votes counted] are going to be exactly right. I’m going to change ten percent of the votes, or five percent–some small number. And that software is going out to pivotal jurisdictions in the country. And that is going to shift the national election. It’s easy for a programmer. And his superiors will never find it…. And this is a solo effort–one guy who happens to be well placed. Of course, many others are involved, but they don’t know.

If some jurisdiction discovered the program didn’t count correctly, “the programmer would simply say there had been a glitch on the tape…or some other technical mumbo jumbo. And we have an election, and the wrong guy gets elected.”

Second, Shamos said, the vendors of the system might fix the elections for politicians for money. Or, he said, there might be “a break-in at the vending company.” Computerized vote-counting, he said, occurs inside “a little black box” that “is completely under the control of the vendor, and if anything wrong happens we might never find out.”

So, Shamos is going to tell us that’s true of the punch-card systems but not the DRE systems–the machines just one of which will count 61 million votes on November 2? Come on. As he sees it now, the issue is “not whether voting systems are absolutely secure” but whether the experts can put enough barriers to fraud in the computerized systems to give voters confidence in the outcomes the computers print out. On that very–his chosen–issue, Shamos, who tested voting machines for Texas and Pennsylvania for twenty years, told lawmakers in Washington on August 23, according to the AP, that the system for “testing and verifying voting equipment in this country is not only broken, but is virtually nonexistent.” That judgment damns the arrangements for testing and verifying all the voting machines, including the DREs. I prefer safeguards to prevent the stealing of paper ballots one or armfuls at a time to trusting anyone, anyone at all, to carry out safeguards to prevent the theft of an entire election in the vote-counting programs.

Patrick O’Neil’s recommendation of a random manual recount of a random subset of voting machines is a good idea for systems using op-tech and punch-cards, but of course in DRE systems, on which 35 million votes will be counted on Election Day, there are no voter-made ballots to recount manually.

Kell Carey is right to emphasize the plethora of honest but serious errors in these systems and the near impossibility of finding malicious computer code even if you examine the source code, because of what the late voting systems specialist Robert Naegele described as “the polynomial problem,” the vastness of the computer spaces involved.

Along with political reporters who until recently routinely have not reported on the vulnerabilities of our voting systems, state and local election officials bear heavy responsibility for the fact that our nation now faces an election in which 84 percent of the votes can be stolen in computers, and 3 out of 10 can’t even be recounted.

To Carey’s puzzlement about the glib obliviousness of election officials, I suggest a variety of explanations, which may apply in some, but not all, of the local jurisdictions: Gullibility. Arrogance. Ignorance. Laziness. Covering their asses. Intellectual dishonesty. Desire to fix elections themselves. And a cynical readiness to blame the critics of computerized vote-counting for the loss of voters’ confidence, which the officials themselves, talking far too fast, have caused.


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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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