Monday, May 11, 2009

"Black Box Voting" Review Part 1

As we prepare for our second week of viewing "Hacking Democracy" and Live Chat, based on the work of Black Box Voting, it seems like a natural time to give more background on this organization, its founder, Bev Harris, and the issues of electronic voting machines. SusanUnPC was kind enough to provide me with the article, Black Box Backlash, which explores how this organization came to be, who Bev Harris is, and what she has faced. Her former colleague, Kathleen Wynne, was instrumental in bringing this information to our attention, thus leading to the Live Chats on this critical issue - the sanctity of our votes, Part 1 (I am breaking the article down into two different parts, so one today, and one tomorrow).

And now, meet Bev Harris:
America's leading critic of electronic voting lives on a cul-de-sac in the blue-collar suburb of Renton. Bev Harris drives a gray Dodge Caravan with a bumper sticker that says, "Keep honking, I'm reloading." Last year, several things broke in her home— the furnace, a sink, and a toilet—and she didn't have the money to get them fixed right away. In fact, the sink and toilet are still broken.

At 52, Harris worries about being overweight, and she can't find a hairdresser she's happy with. In recent years she's made her living as a literary publicist, hawking such books as Odyssey of the Soul by Hugh Harmon and Pamela Chilton, which is about channeling spirits, and Two Codes for Murder, a true-crime story by Dorothea Fuller Smith. A year and half ago, she admits, "I thought voting was boring."

Clearly, Harris' feelings about voting have changed a lot in the past 18 months. Voting has become Harris' passion and vocation. Voting issues consume her life, even pushing her to work around the clock at times.

Since September 2002, Harris has battled a U.S. senator, large corporations, and election officials across the country in her effort to ensure our votes are counted fairly and accurately. At first, she focused on the problems with computer voting. Since then, the name of her Web site ( and her book devoted to the subject—Black Box Voting—have become shorthand for concerns about computers and elections. Moreover, her astounding discoveries on the subject have resulted in damning research by distinguished computer-science professors and numerous articles in major newspapers across the country. Secretaries of state, including Republican Sam Reed of Washington and Democrat Kevin Shelley of California, have responded by proposing key changes in how we will cast our ballots in the future.

HARRIS HAS BECOME a media darling. A major profile is due in Vanity Fair, and her cell phone rings constantly with requests for interviews and documentation, from TV stations and newspapers around the country. Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich all mentioned concerns about electronic voting during this year's campaign. Former first lady and current U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., are sponsoring national legislation responding to the issues raised by Harris and her allies.

Now she has broadened her critique of election security to include subjects like voting over the Internet and the integrity of the software that counts paper ballots across the nation, including those in King County. More importantly, she wants to focus on solutions to the problems she has uncovered. To do that, she and her allies are taking what has largely been an online movement and bringing it into the real world. They are doing speaking tours, lobbying for legis- lative changes, and even running for office. Will they be as successful in the meat world as they have been on the Internet? Or will they be like presidential candidate Howard Dean—an online tiger and an analog kitten?

Harris' online success has brought increased scrutiny. Many elections professionals, private and public, believe her alarm over voting security is unfounded. Even some of her allies find her rhetoric hard to take. Harris is unapologetic. She offers a typically unvarnished opinion on elections officials' understanding of security: "I've never seen such a clueless bunch of people." She feels the mainstream media have begun to back her up. "I've been called every kind of nutcase there is, and now I've been in The New York Times three times," she says.

And I wonder just how much investigation the critics put into her claims regarding these voting machines? As Kathleen Wynne is always quick to remind me, it is in the best interests of a number of corporations, and politicians, for things to stay as they are, a point that cannot be overstated enough, in my opinion.

Back to the article now:

After the election meltdown of 2000, when an incredibly close race for president shined a very bright light on the shortcomings of the American electoral system, Congress took action. It passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, telling states to phase out the infamous punch-card ballots, with their pregnant, hanging, and dimpled chads. HAVA also required a touch-screen voting machine for every polling place, mainly so blind voters could cast their ballots unassisted. As an incentive, Congress included billions in funding for conversion of local electoral systems. Faced with the need to upgrade technology and some federal largesse, some states, like Maryland, and some counties, like Snohomish here in Washington, decided to convert completely to touch-screen polling places. As a result, more than 20 percent of American voters will use touch-screen machines in this year's presidential election, according to Election Data Services, a D.C. consultancy.

Voting on a touch screen is like using a bank's automatic teller machine. There is one vital difference, however: The voting machine does not give you a paper receipt. The absence of a paper trail has alarmed a variety of people, including some of the nation's most renowned computer scientists. Their bottom line? These machines could be hacked. The solution? An auditable, voter-verified paper trail.


For Harris, this all started with a search of the Internet during her lunch hour. She was cruising, a left-wing Web site, when she noticed an article by Lynn Landes. Since she was still sore about the Florida machinations of the 2000 presidential race, the article's scathing critique of computer voting piqued Harris' interest.

She decided to do some research. She learned that Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., had an ownership share in Election Systems & Software (ES&S), whose Web site brags that its equipment counted 56 percent of the nation's votes in each of the past four presidential elections. Moreover, ES&S voting machines count all the votes in Hagel's home state of Nebraska, except in those counties that tally ballots by hand. While there is nothing illegal about the senator's stake in the company, it didn't seem right to Harris. When she posted the information about the situation on her Web site, she promptly received a cease-and-desist order from ES&S lawyers. She e-mailed the cease-and-desist order to 3,000 of her media contacts. Then she thought she'd better tell her husband, Sonny Dudley, who is African American. She says he framed the issue in terms of civil rights. "'My people died for the right to vote,' he boomed. 'I will vote for who I want and no one's gonna stop me,'" she recalls in her book.

This was a shocking revelation when I first heard of it several years ago. How it was Senator Hagel maintained his ties to this company while being a US Senator, especially one who ran for re-election in an area using the very machines his company owned, seemed like just a bit of a conflict of interest. Naturally, his office didn't see it that way:
The issue doesn't seem so dramatic to LouAnn Linehan, Sen. Hagel's chief of staff. She says Hagel has never tried to hide his ties to ES&S and that Harris' claims about the senator run from "inaccurate" to "outrageous." Says ES&S spokesperson Megan McCormick: "Misinformation and inaccuracies were posted on Bev Harris' Web site. Because of the extent of the misinformation, ES&S expressed through an outside attorney its concern and requested correction."

While untangling the specifics of this debate would take an entire article, there's no doubt that jousting with ES&S and Hagel got Harris hooked on the topic. Although she couldn't interest mainstream publishers in the subject, David Allen, a former systems engineer turned comic-book publisher, became intrigued with her research. Soon, Harris had a contract with Allen's Plan Nine Publishing for the company's first non-comic book.

Publisher Allen's technical expertise proved to be vitally important. He urged Harris to get a copy of a technical manual for an electronic voting machine. Harris started surfing the Web. On Jan. 23, 2003, she hit the mother lode. On an unprotected Web site, she found 40,000 files of Diebold Election Systems' source code—the guts of software to run touch-screen voting machines. At first, Harris wasn't sure what all the weird files were, so she called Allen and directed him to the site. What are we looking at? she asked. "Incredible stupidity," he replied.

And how. It is remarkable what people "accidentally" end up posting on the internet, but this was a DOOZY:

Diebold is an Ohio-based company with more than $2 billion in annual revenue that was founded in 1859 and makes ATMs and security systems, among other things. In 2002, Diebold got into the election business when it bought Global Election Systems. Diebold is a relatively small player in the industry, with only 33,000 of its voting stations in use across the country, but it is coming on strong. In 2002, Diebold landed a $54 million contract from Georgia that included 19,000 new voting machines. The following year, Maryland signed a $55.6 million contract for 11,000 new machines.

Diebold, ES&S, and Sequoia are the big three companies making electronic voting machines. All of them refuse to let outside observers examine their software, citing proprietary and security concerns.

Harris' discovery represented the first opportunity for the wider world to glimpse the internal workings of the machines that are playing a key role in our democracy. After a little soul searching, Harris downloaded the Diebold software files. It took 44 hours, and they filled seven CDs. By July 2003, after months of informal review and discussion among her friends and allies, Harris decided to allow Scoop, an "unfiltered" news Web site in New Zealand (, to make the files available to anyone who wanted them. It wasn't a decision she made lightly. "I knew I had something that could provoke a constitutional crisis," she says. She hoped that some computer science professors would take an interest.

This pretty much covers what we saw last week in the first three parts of the documentary, "Hacking Democracy." If you wish to catch up, you can go to THIS LINK to watch the first three parts (Part 2 and 2 will automatically come up at YouTube).

The importance of this topic cannot be overemphasized. We have all been impacted by the "issues" these electronic voting machines have raised, and the questionable tallies they have produced. It is to that, and other related issues, we will direct our attention Wednesday, May 13th, at 9:00pm (EST).

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