Out of Touch

You press the screen. The machine tells you that your vote has been counted. But how can you be sure?

A Louisiana state judge dismissed the charges against Foster in April 2002, according to the Advocate in Baton Rouge. The judge ruled that the prosecutors' case depended upon Foster's grand jury testimony against others involved for which he was granted immunity.

Despite the well-publicized Foster affair, the background and security of companies producing voting machines has not been a prominent consideration for officials making the choices. Bev Harris, a Seattle-based literary publicist and writer, has spent the past few years investigating those companies and posting the findings on her website, blackboxvoting.com. Although mostly ignored by the mainstream press, her disquieting disclosures have led to articles in The Hill and on Salon.com.

She began looking into the ownership of ES&S in late 2001 after reading an article about problems with electronic voting systems. The Omaha-based ES&S is the world's largest elections-supply company and is partly owned by the McCarthy Group, a merchant banking holding company. Michael McCarthy, the firm's chairman, was campaign treasurer for Chuck Hagel, a conservative Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Nebraska in 1996. Harris learned from news archives that Hagel had been president of ES&S, which was then called American Information Systems, from 1992 to 1995. Election records she obtained indicated that Hagel was still holding $1 million to $5 million of stock in the McCarthy Group, which in turn owned about 25 percent of ES&S.

Colby Katz
After he lost a Boca Raton election last year, Emil Danciu and his daughter Charlotte sued the Palm Beach County elections office
Colby Katz
After he lost a Boca Raton election last year, Emil Danciu and his daughter Charlotte sued the Palm Beach County elections office

According to a January 3, 2003, article in The Hill, in 1997 the director of the Senate Ethics Committee requested from Hagel "additional, clarifying information" in regard to the financial disclosure statement senators are required to submit annually. Specifically, the director wanted to know the value of assets he held in the McCarthy Group. Hagel declined and instead cited the assets as exempt as defined by Senate rules.

The article states: "Hagel's filing underscores the currently murky world of Senate disclosures rules in which definitions are subject to change and interpretations can be accepted without further question." The story goes on to describe the significance of the holdings. "Hagel's unrecorded stake in the voting systems company poses an apparent conflict of interest on election reform issues. Three companies, including ES&S, stand to make large profits from election-reform legislation enacted last year by Congress. Many precincts around the country are expected to upgrade to optical scan and touch-screen voting machines as a result of recently enacted election reform." Hagel denied any conflict of interest.

"If the machines are auditable and they're counted right, then ownership is not such an issue," Bev Harris contends. "But without an audit and where we have blatant conflicts of interest, it's an egregious situation."

Harris also questions ballot-box security during the November 2002 election in Georgia, in which incumbent Democrat Max Cleland, a war hero and the favored candidate, lost to Republican Saxby Chambliss. It was the first election in which the entire state used touch-screen machines, in this case purchased from Diebold Elections Systems. Harris found a database maintained by Diebold that allowed outsiders access to software files via the Internet. She described the site as "a virtual tutorial for anyone interested in vote-rigging: easy-to-edit source code, hardware and software specs, testing protocols, sample ballots, and election data." Harris points out that shortly before the November 2002 election in Georgia, a software "patch" had been used to correct a glitch in about 5 percent of the machines, though Georgia elections officials have told Harris that the nonsecure database wasn't used in the patch.

Just how those machines were tested for accuracy and security, however, remains unclear, Harris asserts. "In Georgia, I talked to the secretary of state, who says, 'It wasn't my job to test the patch,' and he points to the elections guy," she says. "The elections guy says he didn't test it, and he points to someone else. No one seemed to know."

A growing number of computer scientists are expressing skepticism over the nation's wholesale transition to paperless voting. David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, began soliciting his colleagues at Stanford to sign a statement calling for an auditable paper trail for every voting machine.

"I know that between the time a person casts his vote on the screen and the time that vote gets recorded in memory or counted later, there's no way to check if the vote was recorded properly," he says. "Computer errors, which happen all too frequently, or tampering, which people might be inclined to do given the stakes in some elections, could change that. So basically you put your votes in the black box, the black box tells you who won the election, and you have no way of checking whether the black box did that in a correct and honest way."

Dill has gathered more than 100 signatures. "These are people from all over the country and even overseas, many of whom are experts in computer security or electronic voting," he says. "I think the problem is that if you have a small number of people they can always be dismissed as anomalies. What I'm trying to do is get the community of computer professionals, including system administrators, who have to deal with security on a daily basis, and show that there is a near-consensus opinion on this. Salesmen for elections companies are much more aggressive about seeking out elections officials than [computer scientists], who don't necessarily poke their heads up from research and say, 'There's a social problem here.'"

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