Heads up, team, the voting-machine situation requires sustained attention, but not panic or paranoia. There is time to act, but act we must.
Yes, it is high time to "view with alarm" (an editorial page cliche rivaled only by "point with pride"), and with bipartisan alarm at that. It's in everyone's interest to have the cleanest, fairest elections possible � that's one of those things you can watch even the most partisan politicians serving on legislative elections committees figure out in no time. The only way to make sure nobody's ox gets gored is to keep it clean. If you don't think there are just as many bright, 14-year-old hackers who would rig a vote in favor of Democrats as there are who would rig it for Republicans, you've been neglecting the 14-year-old hacker set.
I suppose I've been calmer about the possibility/probability that electronic voting machines can be rigged than some others who are now looking at the bad news because it's an old story to me. Ronnie Dugger, a veteran Texas journalist (despite the fact that he's taken to living in, of all places, Cambridge, Mass.), has been on this case for years. I suppose I mentally assigned it to some "Ronnie's taking care of that" category.
But as Dugger's questions and predictions keep turning out to be more and more eerily prescient, it's clear this is something about which the general public needs be aroused and even plenty upset.
The problems with electronic voting machines are numerous and grave, starting with the fact that the software which runs them is considered "proprietary information" by the companies that make them. In other words, they won't tell anyone what it is, how it works or anything else about the systems, meaning we have no way of knowing if they're clean, reliable or even functional.
That uncomfortable situation was rather dramatically underlined when Walden (Wally) O'Dell, chairman and CEO of Diebold Election Systems and a Bush campaign "Pioneer" (meaning he raised at least $100,000), wrote in a 2003 fund-raising letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president." At the time, Diebold was trying to get on Ohio's "favored vendor" list and is now on it. Elections Systems and Software, the country's largest maker of the machines, also has a GOP pedigree.
It's a shame Diebold isn't a big Democratic fund-raiser who said he was committed to delivering Ohio for Kerry, so the Republicans could see how they like that. But I'm sure there are enough Republican conspiracy theorists to contemplate the happy proposition that, while chairmen and CEOs may lean Republican, there are any number of partisan Democrats lurking in engineering departments and liberal moles in software-writing offices.
Last July, a team of computer scientists from Johns Hopkins and Rice universities studied the Diebold machines and concluded they are "a threat to democracy." Bev Harris, author of "Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century," reports electronic voting machines are "designed for fraud." Apparently, you can rig these things so that Osama can win an election. One experiment in how long it took to open one up and swipe its software produced a record of 10 seconds.
Making the software for voting machines both bug-less and hacker-proof simply may not be possible, but as many have observed, the things as they stand are an open invitation to voter fraud. As The New York Times pointed out, slot machines in Las Vegas are held to far higher standards of transparency and inspection.
The simplest way to make sure the machines aren't miscounting is to require a paper trail on each ballot. In California, the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel recommended the machines be shelved, and then Secretary of State Kevin Shelley revoked certification of Diebold's paperless electronic voting machines.
Eight other states now require a paper trail, something that is not difficult to design or install, despite Diebold's initial protests that it is oh-so-hard. Florida, scene of so many painful voting memories in 2000, had a single race election in January in Palm Beach where the victory margin was 12, but the machines registered more than 130 blank ballots. You think 130 people came to the polls to not vote? There was no recount because the machines had no paper records.
There are bills in both the U.S. Senate and House to require paper trails in time for the 2004 election, but they're stuck in committee. Take pen in hand and write (or email) your elected representative, ASAP. Then bask in the benign glow of civic rectitude that follows. Well done.