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October 16, 2003

Welcome to Latin America. I may be the last weblog writer to link to this measured and well-researched roundup of reasons to be concerned about the spread of unverifiable electronic voting systems in America. If you haven’t read it yet, do so. Yes, it’s in the Independent—warning, warbloggers, Robert Fisk cooties! As Kevin Drum remarked, “Why do I have to go to England to find this story, anyway?”

Indeed, for a long time, I’ve resisted getting too exercised about this issue, because I simply couldn’t bring myself to believe how bad it is. Ken MacLeod articulated that sense of oh-god, this-can’t-be-true:

I find the whole thing almost literally unbelievable. How the hell can a great nation hand over control of its voting, for crying out loud, to corporations? Corporations who are deeply partisan? And deeply interested in the outcome of the elections? Hello? Some of them run by people who believe in theocracy? WTF?

To my mind, one of the most striking comments came from Billmon of the outstanding Whiskey Bar, who pointed out that one of the most disquieting aspects of the Independent story has nothing to do with computers or programming:

One of the conditions states have to fulfil to receive federal funding for the new voting machines, meanwhile, is a consolidation of voter rolls at state rather than county level.
Said Billmon:
The consolidation of such a key function at the state level begins to erode what I had thought was the ultimate safeguard against trying to tamper with a national election—the voting process is so decentralized that an effective conspiracy would be impossible, much less easily detectable. While the same decentralization can lead to fiascos like the Florida recount, it’s also a check against the kind of election rigging that the PRI used to be so adept at in Mexico.

Like I said, I don’t know how alarmed we should all be about this. But after reading the Independent’s story it was hard not to be reminded of the 1988 presidential election in Mexico, when the computers at the centralized, national election bureau mysteriously “failed” after early returns showed the left-wing insurgent candidate, Cuautemoc Cardenas, in the lead. When the count resumed, the PRI candidate was declared the winner.

Not that anything like that would ever happen here, perish the thought. Remember, power corrupts other people.

Billmon gets in the last word:

The fact that such an important and thoroughly researched story appeared in the Independent, and not the New York Times or the Washington Post, is a pointed comment, I suppose, on the long decline of American journalism.

It seems voting machines aren’t the only democratic devices in danger of failing.

[02:22 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Welcome to Latin America.:

Billmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 02:48 PM:

In hindsight I think I was a little hard on the PRI -- after all, they DID let the opposition win the last presidential election.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 03:21 PM:

My one additional comment on this is nothing that runs on MS-Windows is secure becaues MS-Windows is not secure. Aaaaagh! I am more likely to attribute this to stupidity than malice so far, but we're into the gross stupidity zone here.

And, think of it, your ATM may have been designed by Diebold. What else have these people done?

(Me, I still remember the cruddy security systems for nuclear power plants I once worked on. No, I won't write more about those--I hope, though, that they are long out of service.)

Randy Paul ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 05:33 PM:

Well, since you did mention Latin America, it's worth noting that last year Brazil completed an all-electronic election that certainly appears to be in keeping with what the polls were showing. It's also worth noting that voting in Brazil is mandatory.

Martial ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 06:02 PM:

"Remember, power corrupts other people"

During some part of his education, Bush probably scanned Bartlett's for quotes from "great conservatives". The problem is that he thought Lord Acton's warning was an instruction.

Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 06:24 PM:

I worked for the Indpendent for long enough not really to believe anything that appears in it about computers. But that story was completely horrifying, and and completely credible. The hubris involved has the unmistakable ring of truth: as Martial said "power corrupts other people".

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 06:52 PM:

As Martial said, Andrew--?

Power sulk!

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 07:07 PM:

I wonder if those voting machines run Internet Explorer and Outlook Express? (Evil grin.)

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2003, 07:17 PM:

The key is a physically verifiable audit trail. I don't care whether we use touchscreens or pencil and paper to get there. Physically verifiable audit trail--that's the talking point.

Martin Sutherland ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2003, 06:20 AM:

It's not just about computers, though. If the government(whether at local, state, or national level) were to outsource the control and tallying of paper ballots to private corporations, you'd still have the same problem. Likewise if the government decided that only members of the policical party in power were allowed to tally votes cast.

From the Independent article, this is the piece I find the most chilling:

"The vote count was not conducted by state elections officials, but by the private company that sold Georgia the voting machines in the first place, under a strict trade-secrecy contract that made it not only difficult but actually illegal - on pain of stiff criminal penalties - for the state to touch the equipment or examine the proprietary software to ensure the machines worked properly."

Elections belong to the people. Corporations are not people. They have no place in democratic elections beyond providing basic equipment, whether that's pencils and printed ballot sheets, or touchscreens and memory cards. However, it's just as impractical for election officials to manufacture their own paper and pencils as it is for them to design and build their own computer equipment, so at some point, they will have to rely on an external company or corporation.

Question time: if you know that you have to buy tools from a potentially corrupt entity, do you try to obtain the simplest possible equipment, whose correctness you can verify with your own eyes; or do you let them foist techno-magick black boxes on you, whose reliability you cannot check?

The problem is not that computerised voting equipment is susceptible to Trojan Horses: the computers are the Trojan Horses. The real potential for corruption and malice lies with the people who control the voting process. Computerised voting takes control of elections out of the hands of the people, and hands it to corporations. Bad thing.

(Someone please reassure me that I'm just being paranoid, and that the world really is a safe and nice place?)

Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2003, 08:05 AM:

"Recalled a check ten million billion dollars too large and wondered how many had voted for me? Seven thousand? Seven hundred? Or just my family and friends?"

Just as well Heinlein didn't live to see this, because it might have killed him.

Nicholas Weininger ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2003, 09:38 AM:

While we're mentioning the able Mr. MacLeod, this brings to mind for me the brilliant line from one of my favorite sections of _Dark Light_ (or was it _Cosmonaut Keep_?):

"Elections are *so* undemocratic."

Of course, if we had a system where representatives were chosen by random lot, we'd probably have stories about the company that writes the random-number-generator routines...

Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2003, 04:21 AM:

Well, now we know how democracy dies in America. It dies not with a bang but a whimper. As Florida proved, it's not voting that counts but who counts the votes. Very soon now all of America will be Florida. Looked at from the outside, I don't see any way you can halt this process either; it's almost a done deal. With your press not even reporting what is the most important story in the US today (not surprising -the US press was bought and neutered a long time ago), the public won't know it's happening, not even after it's complete. Seriously expecting Dubya to be defeated at the next election can now be seen to be absurd. He won't be *allowed* to lose.

In November next year the fat lady sings.

I'd like to believe there's some possibility I'm wrong, that it won't happen this way, but if there's something that can or will stop it, it appears entirely invisible from over here.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2003, 09:40 PM:

I'd like to figure out some way of saying to overseas friends like Rob Hansen--and Rob is a friend--just how completely unhelpful outbursts like the above are.

I mean, one of two things is true:

(1) Rob's analysis is way too pessimistic, there's plenty that can still be done, and therefore he's going out of his way to damage the morale of people who are doing their best to fight the good fight; or

(2) Rob's analysis is essentially correct, in which case he's going out of his way to crow at people who are going to need help, not superiority dances.

Alternately, maybe Rob is just upset and not in control of his tone. That's all right; this stuff upsets us, too. But you know something, "democracy" has "failed" plenty of times in America before. Democracy isn't a logical axiom that's destroyed every time Might comes along and beats up on Right. When Martin Luther King was writing Letter from Birmingham Jail, "democracy" had pretty conclusively failed him. Come to think of it, democracy had been failing Americans who looked like Martin Luther King for two or three hundred years.

How King ended his letter from jail: "Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty."

I dunno, maybe he would have been smarter and more hip to have said "Hey, we're screwed, we've lost, this is all so over."

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2003, 11:11 PM:

Here's something I put up last week from The Soul of a Nation (washingtonpost.com)

Take Heart! There Will Be A Forty-Fourth President

No, it's not the same thing--it never is.

Vaclav Havel on Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma: "I recall that my friends and I for decades were asked by people visiting from democratic Western countries, 'How can you, a mere handful of powerless individuals, change the regime, when the regime has at hand all the tools of power: the army, the police and the media, when it can convene gigantic rallies to reflect its people's "support" to the world, when pictures of the leaders are everywhere and any effort to resist seems hopeless and quixotic?'

"My answer was that it was impossible to see the inside clearly, to witness the true spirit of the society and its potential -- impossible because everything was forged. In such circumstances, no one can perceive the internal, underground movements and processes that are occurring. No one can determine the size of the snowball needed to initiate the avalanche leading to the disintegration of the regime."

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 01:23 AM:

My guess is that bank executives turned embezzlers probably go through a number of stages before they work up the nerve to put their hands in the till and erase the audit trail.

The temptation may arise when opportunity presents itself. "Hmm, this bank's bookkeeping procedures were designed by idiots. I could probably get away with half the cash in the drawer without anyone being able to trace it."

But, maybe the potential embezzler doesn't like the way that security guard over there is looking at him. "It's almost as if that guy can read my mind and tell what I'm thinking."

We've all got to be that security guard. There are some encouraging notes. The IEEE backed down from its official sanction of the methodology of the Diebolt voting machines.

I haven't seen stories about the crackability of the voting machines on the front pages of newspapers. But it's certainly been documented all over the Web. And there is some discussion of the issue on the back pages of newspapers.

It's a good thing to keep up the infield chatter about IEEE Standards, paper trails, and exit polls for our good journalists and elected representatives. Let Diebolt know it's being watched and they'll have a harder time working up the nerve to do what we now know they can do to the results from those machines.

In the meantime, we've still got a year to try to get all the states not governed by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris to do something about audit trails.

Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 08:55 AM:

Well, I've just reread my post a couple of time, trying to see it as you obviously did, Patrick, and I *still* can't find anything in it that suggests a "superiority dance". From my pov, the 'tone' you saw is something you brought to it rather than something I put there. Far from feeling in any way "superior", I'm actually pretty worried since, as history as shown, there's no American idea so awful that a British government won't eventually copy it.

And I wish I thought I was being overly pessimistic. I was hoping there would be a response from someone over there pointing out a way in which this would, of course, be stopped, something obvious which I - looking in from the outside - had failed to appreciate. I still want to see that response, because this situation really does look that grim to me. (I'm particularly disturbed by the alleged theocratic beliefs of major Diebold execs, too.)

If Dubya becomes a liability they'll find a new front man, but it'll still be the same guys in control.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:15 AM:

The obvious, simple thing to do is to show up very early at the polling place in a group of a hundred or more -- about fifty-fifty locally known card carrying Republicans and card-carrying Democrats -- with printed ballots, ballot boxes, some pre-agreed means of checking citizenship, and a big tub of water for the voting machines. (which recieve an extended immersional baptism while powered on.)

Doing this for every polling place takes time, effort, and money, but there's a year to set it up and it's one of those obvious return on investment things.

The other side of that is to make damn sure all the electronic vote counting servers are hacked from hell to breakfast, so that the election results are in the trillions for fictional characters or dead presidents -- it might be rather appropriately symbolic if George Washington got all the votes -- or, really, more realistically, since the results will be lied about in their entirety, it would be better to crash them hard so that there are *no* results. (Thermite in the server case is the ideal value of 'crash hard', but wiping the hard drive ought to do.)

My own take on it is the Congressional Representatives who voted against a bill requiring an audit trail should be hung from lamp posts, presumably by those single-issue Second Ammendment absolutists wishing to retain the credibility of the 'an armed citizenry is a check on government' argument. This is likely not something the majority of the citizenry of the US would yet accept as just.

Nell Lancaster ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2003, 07:33 PM:

Congressional Representatives who voted against a bill requiring an audit trail

There has been no vote, or even committee hearings, on Rush Holt's H.R. 2239, which requires that the new electronic voting systems provide a paper audit trail.

You can help get it moving by urging your Rep. to become a co-sponsor; only 45 have. Letters to the editor urging others to write are also helpful. Short and sweet is best; protecting democracy this simply is common sense to most people.

So much so that a member of Congress ought to have some explaining to do if he or she won't support it... Start offering them the opportunity to protect your right to vote today. more info on the bill