Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Black Box Voting," Part 2

This is Part 2 of the article "Black Box Backlash," the conclusion of Part 1 on Bev Harris, Black Box Voting, and the issue of leaving our democracy to electronic voting machines. This will be the topic of our Live Chat on Weds., May 13th, at 9:00 PM.

Back to the article:
COMPUTER SCIENTISTS were already hotly debating the issue. Stanford University's David Dill became interested in computer voting when the state of Georgia had technical problems with its new voting machines in 2002. When Dill discovered his own county, Santa Clara in California, was about to start using electronic voting machines without paper output, he swung into action. Dill started an online petition calling for a paper trail that attracted some of the nation's premier computer scientists. He put up a Web site that eventually became www.verifiedvoting.org and began speaking out about the issue around the country.

Harris' instincts about posting the source code proved to be dead-on. Four computer scientists from Maryland's prestigious Johns Hopkins University examined the code and released a scathing review of it. "Our analysis shows that this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts," their report stated.

While the Hopkins review did not cause political pandemonium, it did validate Harris' gut feelings about electronic voting—our votes were not secure because the software recording them was vulnerable to hacking. The report also attracted major media attention across the country.

Diebold spokesperson David Bear says, "Electronic voting is safe, secure, and accurate." Bear says the code that Harris found on the Internet was partial and outdated. In addition, Bear points out, the software is not used in a vacuum. Election officials use a variety of checks and balances with any system that they employ to ensure its security.

After the Hopkins report, the state of Maryland had a couple of consultants review the touch-screen machines and the way they will be deployed in elections. The consultants made some recommendations to increase security, but Maryland is proceeding with the elections using the Diebold equipment.

Far be it from me to not believe a Diebold spokesperson, but, I don't believe him. His contention that the machines are safe and secure flies in the face of a number of reports, including being able to access them with a mini-bar key! So, yeah, I'm not buying what he was selling. Makes me wonder why Maryland did, all evidence to the contrary. But, I'm not the only one who is just a tad suspicious:

Harris, however, was not done with Diebold. Last Sept. 5, someone leaked 15,000 internal Diebold memos to Harris. She says she published 24 of them on her own PR Web site and was promptly hit with a cease-and-desist letter from Diebold. Soon, all 15,000 of the memos were circulating on the Internet. Independent media sites around the world and students at more than 30 universities posted them. Diebold tried to stop the postings by claiming copyright on the memos and found itself entangled in a free-speech battle. Eventually, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, posted them on his congressional Web site. Diebold recognized that Kucinich held a trump card and withdrew its objections to the postings.

Sadly, the memos themselves have not been the subject of any thorough analysis. They are mostly e-mails from Diebold employees and are full of phrases that sound bad but are hard to understand without technical expertise and context.

Diebold's Bear says, "Those were internal discussions between individuals, not the sentiments of the company."

HARRIS THINKS the memos contain important revelations. Perhaps the most important, she argues, is that there is widespread use of uncertified software for voting machines of all kinds. Whether we vote on the new touch-screen system or the optical-scan paper ballots in use in King County and elsewhere, computer software counts our ballots. Harris believes a strict certification process where federal and state officials carefully test the election software is central to voting security. Without proper certification, she worries that improper code that would allow for the manipulation of election results might be introduced into the system.

By last Nov. 21, Kevin Shelley, California's secretary of state, had heard enough. He issued an order that all touch- screen voting machines include "an accessible voter verified paper audit trail." (Washington's Reed and Nevada's secretary of state, Dean Heller, came out in favor of audit trails in December.) The next month, Shelley commissioned an audit into whether uncertified Diebold software was being used in California's elections. Of the 17 California counties that used Diebold election machines in the last election, Shelley's auditors found, none was using software that had been properly certified by the state. Diebold insists that the changes made to the software are cosmetic. Shelley says the company might lose the right to sell its touch-screen machines in California.

All in all, 2003 was quite a year for Bev Harris. But she insists she is just getting started.

Bear in mind, this was 6 years ago. So much information came to light, yet, Diebold was still selling machines across the country. Harris wasn't done yet:

In 2004, Harris and her allies have been working on four new fronts: lobbying, public speaking, litigation, and seeking public office.

At the start of this year's Washington Legislature, there were two bills about issues related to electronic voting. Harris and her ally, Linda Franz, another voting activist, introduced one with the help of legislators in both the House and the Senate. It died a relatively quick death, however.

The other bill, introduced by Secretary of State Reed, represented a big change in his position. Up until December, Reed and his office had strongly resisted any effort to require touch-screen voting machines to have a voter-verified audit trail. Reed says that as he toured the state talking with ordinary voters, he realized there was a lot of anxiety about the new electronic voting. He has seen this phenomenon before, he says, when other new voting technology—like the optical scan paper ballot—was introduced. "It was one thing to hear from a few people on the Internet," he says, "but we found ordinary citizens didn't trust these machines."

Harris and her allies, however, are furious opponents of Reed's bill. They say it leaves the door open for insecure Internet voting, takes too long to require a paper trail with touch-screen voting machines, and has an insufficient audit requirement and a host of other ills. "You have a secretary of state that crafts legislation that sounds good but doesn't deliver," says Franz.

REED IS RELUCTANT to engage in a debate with Harris and her allies. He says he hasn't seen their bill and downplays the differences between himself and them. He offers only the mildest criticism and says on the whole their activism has been helpful. He does object to the way they have verbally roughed up elections officials like Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger. "Bob has been on radio shows with Bev Harris. I fortunately haven't had that experience," he says, laughing.

As of Tuesday, March 9, the fate of Reed's legislation was still up in the air.

Wow - this guy can be Secretary of State, but he's afraid to take on this grandmother? Talk about your lack of intestinal fortitude...I know, I know, that seems to go hand-in-hand with being a politician, but still - c'mon already! Not only that, but saying one thing one day, and another the next seems to be a chronic disease for too many politicians:
Longtime voting-rights activist Janet Anderson questions the wisdom of head-on, fierce opposition to Reed and his bill by Harris and her allies. "The secretary of state changed his position 180 degrees. Instead of being supportive, they are making it clear they don't trust him."

In fact, Harris' right-hand man is running against Reed. Andy Stephenson met Harris through Democratic Underground, a left-wing Web site (www.democraticunderground.com), and they immediately became close cohorts. Stephenson, 42, looks like a shorter, stockier version of talk-show host Conan O'Brien, and until recently he owned the Subway shop on 15th Avenue on Seattle's Capitol Hill. As a former telephone salesperson, he has skills that Harris lacks: He's great on the phone or talking one-on-one with people.

Stephenson is running a fiery campaign against Reed. "The secretary of state is accountable to no one," he charges. His campaign for elected office suffers from a flaw common among impassioned rookies, however: He believes his issue will be enough against seasoned politicians like Reed and Democratic Party favorite state Rep. Laura Ruderman, D-Kirkland, who have name identification with voters and will raise much more money and receive much more institutional support than Stephenson will.

HARRIS HASN'T endorsed Stephenson because she doesn't endorse candidates. But it's clear Harris likes him and his tactics, which include filing a lawsuit against Reed for allowing the use of uncertified software in King County. The secretary of state's office denies the charge. Meanwhile, Harris is a plaintiff in a California lawsuit that seeks to end use of Diebold equipment in that state. She and Stephenson promise more lawsuits in other states, including Washington.

The partisan, rancorous nature of Stephenson's campaign concerns veteran activist Anderson. "I don't like it when people start speaking in partisan terms, because we all want honest, safe, secure elections. To turn it into partisan name-calling turns off half the people."

At a recent forum, Stephenson, who is charming tête-à-tête, looked extremely uncomfortable while making an awkward stump speech. As if to emphasize the protest nature of his candidacy, he endorsed dark-horse presidential candidate Kucinich.

Well, we know that outcome - Reed is still Secretary of State in California.

Back to Bev Harris:

Harris, on the other hand, is a marvelous speaker. As a PR professional, she knows how to present her material in a personable, funny way. She hopes to use public speaking tours as another weapon in her arsenal and took her act on the road to California this month.

The tone of Harris' rhetoric disturbs Anderson. "Bev Harris is a little more conspiracy-oriented than I tend to be. I don't believe this is a huge Republican plot to steal elections," she says. "Maybe the whole matter would have been taken more seriously earlier had not the highly partisan charges been made so shrilly."

That kind of criticism angers Harris. But there's no doubt some of her claims have lacked substantiation. Near the end of Black Box Voting, she writes: "There are some who are using election-manipulation techniques to transfer a block of power to their friends. This is a business plan, a form of organized crime. . . . " Yet Harris rejects any claim she is a conspiracy theorist. "I understand the needs of the press in terms of documentation and not overstating your case," she says, and she has worked to scale back the hype in her writing.

Yet at a recent forum at the University of Washington, the more outrageous Harris' rhetoric got, the more the audience loved it. One key to Harris' success has been her in-your-face style. That characteristic, which brought early success, might not resonate with everyone. She isn't confident of victory in any case. "Actually, it is going to be a long shot that we will win this battle on voting machines," Harris says. "We have proven our case, but they are still just barreling ahead." (ghowland@seattleweekly.com)

Just because someone may be a conspiracy theorist doesn't mean they are WRONG. There has been AMPLE evidence to support Harris' contentions about Diebold (and other) electronic voting machines, including by our CIA, for pete's sake! I mean, really - what's the point of having highly trained professionals give us their opinion if we are simply going to ignore what they have to say? THAT makes no sense, in my opinion. What Ms. Harris has been saying for years now, does. Especially since she has been backed up by a number of universities and specialists in this area.

The question is: why are we still using these machines?

Please join us for our second Live Chat and viewing of Parts 4 - 6 of the HBO documentary, "Hacking Democracy" Weds. night, May 13, at 9:00pm (EST) to discuss this, and other questions.

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