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The Vote Grab: Voting Machines Are Unreliable and Inaccurate

by Peter Tatchell

As early voting in the US presidential elections gets underway, ES&S iVotronics touch-screen electronic voting machines have been observed in four separate states flipping the votes - mostly from Barack Obama to John McCain but sometimes to third party candidates too. This has already occurred during early voting in the states of West Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and Texas.

A county clerk in West Virginia invited a video crew to watch his demonstration of the reliability of the disputed voting machines but instead he saw the machine flipping the votes, as critics claimed. He put this down to the faulty calibration of the voting machine. However, even after he recalibrated the machine it continued to flip votes. Watch the video here:

This is further evidence that the electronic voting machines that will be used in the 4 November election are not reliable and accurate - that they are prone to malfunction and may not record the actual vote winner.

Democrats are not the only people who are worried. Stephen Spoonamore, a Republican security expert, explains why electronic voting is inherently unsafe in an eight part series of interviews. You can watch Part 1, and access Parts 2 to 7, here.

Writing in the New Statesman way back in 2004, reflecting on criticisms of the electronic voting systems used in the presidential election that year, Michael Meacher MP pointed out that statisticians, academics and political analysts had highlighted significant voting differences between electoral districts that used paper ballots and those that used electronic systems. These cannot be explained by random variation. The investigators found a much larger variance than expected and in every case it favoured George W Bush over John Kerry. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the discrepancy favoured Bush by 4 per cent, in Pennsylvania by 5 per cent, in Florida and Minnesota by 7 per cent, in North Carolina by 9 per cent and in New Hampshire by a whopping 15 per cent.

Research by the University of Berkeley, California, revealed election irregularities in 2004 in Florida. These irregularities, all of which were associated with electronic voting machines, appear to have awarded between 130,000 to 260,000 additional votes to Bush.

The discrepancies between paper and electronic voting could be the result of simple technological glitches. But some experts detect something more sinister: outright vote fixing by interference with voting machine and tabulation software.

Meacher reported that Diebold company voting machines and optical scanners may not be tamper-proof from hacking, particularly via remote modems. Diebold machines were used in counting a substantial proportion of the 2004 votes and will be used again in next week's presidential poll.

Two US computer security experts, in their book Black Box Voting, state that "by entering a two-digit code in a hidden location, a second set of votes is created; and this set of votes can be changed in a matter of seconds, so that it no longer matches the correct votes".

This is entirely possible, according to Clinton Curtis, a Florida computer programmer. He has confirmed that in 2000 he designed an undetectable programme for Republican congressman Tom Feeney. It was created to rig elections by covertly switching votes from one candidate to another to ensure a predetermined ballot outcome. See a video of his sworn testimony here.

As Robert F Kennedy Jr, nephew of JFK, has exposed, the US is one of the few democracies that allow private, partisan companies to secretly count votes using their own proprietary software.

Moreover, the vast majority of western democracies have independent Election Commissions to oversee voting methods and corroborate the results. The US does not.

Most election ballots next week will be tallied or scanned by four private companies - Diebold, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Sequoia Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic.

According to Kennedy:

Three of the four companies have close ties to the Republican Party. ES&S, in an earlier corporate incarnation, was chaired by Chuck Hagel, who in 1996 became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Nebraska in twenty-four years - winning a close race in which eighty-five percent of the votes were tallied by his former company. Hart InterCivic ranks among its investors GOP loyalist Tom Hicks, who bought the Texas Rangers from George W. Bush in 1998, making Bush a millionaire fifteen times over. And according to campaign-finance records, Diebold, along with its employees and their families, has contributed at least $300,000 to GOP candidates and party funds since 1998 - including more than $200,000 to the Republican National Committee. In a 2003 fund-raising e-mail, the company's then-CEO Walden O'Dell promised to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to Bush in 2004."

Is it right and proper for partisan pro-Republican companies to count the votes? It is certainly not objective and impartial.

Kennedy recounts how computer scientists at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities conducted an analysis of the Diebold voting machine software source code in July 2003. "This voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts... (it is) unsuitable for use in a general election," the scientists concluded.

"With electronic machines, you can commit wholesale fraud with a single alteration of software," Avi Rubin told Kennedy. He is a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins who received $US7.5 million from the National Science Foundation to study electronic voting. "There are a million little tricks when you build software that allow you to do whatever you want. If you know the precinct demographics, the machine can be programmed to recognize its precinct and strategically flip votes in elections that are several years in the future. No one will ever know it happened."

Electronic voting machines not only break down frequently, their security and integrity is also easily compromised, says Kennedy:

"In October 2005, the US Government Accountability Office issued a damning report on electronic voting machines. Citing widespread irregularities and malfunctions, the government's top watchdog agency concluded that a host of weaknesses with touch-screen and optical-scan technology 'could damage the integrity of ballots, votes and voting-system software by allowing unauthorized modifications'...Locks protecting computer hardware were easy to pick. Unsecured memory cards could enable individuals to 'vote multiple times, change vote totals and produce false election reports.'

An even more comprehensive report released in June by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank at the New York University School of Law, echoed the GAO's findings. The report - conducted by a task force of computer scientists and security experts from the government, universities and the private sector - was peer-reviewed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Electronic voting machines widely adopted since 2000, the report concluded, "pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state and local elections." While no instances of hacking have yet been documented, the report identified 120 security threats to three widely used machines - the easiest method of attack being to utilize corrupt software that shifts votes from one candidate to another.

There is no evidence that the voting machine malfunctions, flaws and security risks identified in the 2004 ballot have been fully corrected in time for the 2008 vote. This calls into question whether the 4 November ballot will reflect the will of the American people. As Kennedy concludes:

"You do not have to believe in conspiracy theories to fear for the integrity of our electoral system: The right to vote is simply too important - and too hard won - to be surrendered without a fight. It is time for Americans to reclaim our democracy from private interests."

To contact Peter Tatchell and for more information about his human rights campaigns visit www.petertatchell.net

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