A possible computer glitch may have lost thousands of votes in Sarasota County, Florida in an election for a U.S. House of Representatives seat. As of Thursday, Democrat Christine Jennings had refused to concede to Republican Vern Buchanon until the matter is investigated.
"The big change in voting -- especially since all of the problems that Florida had during the 2000 presidential election -- is that people are looking more closely at their ballots and seeing more mistakes. E-voting must have checks and balances," David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University and the founder of the San Francisco-based group Verified Voting, told IPS.
While scattered reports of technical problems are still trickling in, there is no evidence so far that any involved deliberate hacking or tampering. However, other coercive and illegal tactics were apparently used to suppress voter turnout in some states.
The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), an organization devoted to promoting civil and voting rights among African-Americans, had members in 15 states monitoring polling places for any signs of political party operatives trying to influence voters. Voter intimidation has a long history in U.S. politics, especially in the South.
Early on Tuesday, dozens of voters in northern Virginia told the NCBCP monitors that in the early morning hours, they had received anonymous telephone calls saying, in essence, "You are registered in another state. If you try to vote today, you will be arrested on a federal charge."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is currently investigating the matter. Virginia is now the key to a Democratic takeover of the Senate, with Democrat James Webb leading the Republican incumbent, George Allen, by a relatively narrow 7,000 votes.
Although Allen had threatened to contest the results, he is now expected to deliver a concession speech later this afternoon.
Dill's group has long urged that computerized voting be accompanied by a "paper trail" so that voters can verify the accuracy of their choice. So far, 28 states have adopted this requirement. He also believes that e-voting machines should be subject to random manual audits -- something 13 states now do.
"There's no known way to make computers trustworthy and I know of no computer science professor who I respect that believes that they can be," Dill said.
The two main types of e-voting machines in the U.S. are optical-scan (which has an oval next to each candidate's name on the ballot that is filled in by the voter) and machines that use electronic ballots. They do not tally votes. Depending on each state, the counting process is done at a separate location, usually a county courthouse.
One of the leading companies that designed and built both types of voting machines is Diebold Electronic Systems, based in North Canton, Ohio. "We offer support services (to districts and precincts that use Diebold voting machines) but we do it upon the request and authorization of election jurisdiction," said David Bear, a Diebold spokesman.
On election days, Diebold provides anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 part-time employees throughout the U.S. to help poll workers in the voting process. In non-election years, the company has approximately 100 employees.
Diebold has had its share of controversy. Over the summer, a Princeton University computer scientist and some graduate students found a way to hack into a Diebold voting machine's computer software, demonstrating that such an event could occur and that an election's outcome could be manipulated.
In 2003, the former CEO of Diebold, Walden O'Dell, circulated a now-infamous George W. Bush fundraiser invitation in which he declared: "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."
Throughout this month, Home Box Office (HBO) is broadcasting the documentary "Hacking Democracy." The film shows how Bev Harris, a writer from Seattle, got in possession of about 40,000 computer files from a Diebold machine by accident, doing so merely by clicking onto a web link. She then took the data to a local computer expert, who found very little security in the Diebold computer software.
Bear told IPS that "Hacking Democracy" is "full of mistakes."
"I don't think it was fact-checked," he said. "For example, the film says that Diebold tabulated 40 percent of the votes cast in the 2000 presidential election. Diebold wasn't even in the electronic voting business in America in 2000."
The first-known instance of electronic-voting in the U.S. happened in San Diego County, California in 1963, according to Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services (EDS), a consulting firm that collects data about e-voting.
"The Cubic system (named after the company that ran the 1963 e-voting) used was partly electronic and partly optical scan. Frankly, it didn't work too well," she said. "There were numerous problems with Cubic's system and Cubic realized that getting into the voting business was a big pain and costly and never did it again."
Today, Diebold alone has built and sold about 125,000 voting machines. The other two major players are Election Systems & Software of Nebraska and Sequoia Voting Systems of California.
"There are roughly 183,000 precincts in the country and that's a lot of places where problems could occur," Brace added.
One issue is that in many states there are no background checks of the employees that design and oversee voting machines. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an investigation unit of the U.S. Treasury Department, is now looking into a possible conflict of interest involving the owner of Sequoia Voting Systems and the Venezuelan telephone company CANTV.
Part of CFIUS's investigation is to try to determine whether CANTV is secretly controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
U.S. citizens will return to the polls en masse in 2008. Dill told IPS that "There are no computer software programs now being worked on, at least that I know of, that would eliminate everything that could corrupt e-voting systems in time to be used for the 2008 presidential election."
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Albion Monitor November
8, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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