Back on hack

Whoever wins on Election Day, will it be possible for any rational person to look at the results and not at least …wonder?
Farhad Manjoo,

So breathe. Sen. George Allen conceded defeat in the U.S. Senate race to Democrat Jim Webb last week. Democrats control the U.S. Congress.

I expect to see a comforting bit of gridlock. And doesn’t it give you warm stickies to see Bush reaching out to Democrats, dining with Nancy Pelosi one day and chilling with Harry Reid the next?

Now that we’re all feeling happily bipartisan, it seems like a good time to address concerns about our electronic voting gizmos.

I wrote a story on e-voting in 2003 when Dean Heller was picking machines for Nevada. A glorious save to hanging chads and messy paper ballots for some, electronic voting machines were the devil’s hackable handiwork to others.

That year, my fears were soothed by a local election official who’d studied voting machines and felt confident that they were a secure, reliable solution for Election 2004. Heller further addressed concerns by buying Diebold machines that provided a printed record in addition to the electronic info.

Time passed, and so did the election—complete with weird reports of e-voting inconsistencies. In Robert Kennedy’s Rolling Stone article, “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” he noted that it was odd how the exit polls had so wrongly predicted a Kerry win. Kennedy quoted political consultant Dick Morris who said exit polls are almost never wrong. The surveys are “so reliable that they are used as guides to the relative honesty of elections in Third World countries,” Morris said.

Kennedy revisited Ohio’s e-voting oddities. About 100 voters in heavily Democratic areas reported that when they entered “Kerry” on the screen, they saw “Bush” light up. At least 20 machines required mid-election fixes for flipping Kerry votes to Bush. In one well-reported story, an electronic machine at a fundamentalist church in Gahanna recorded 4,258 votes for Bush and 260 votes for Kerry. Yet the precinct only had 800 registered voters of whom 638 showed up. The error, a memory card glitch, was corrected. (Read more, with links to referenced materials, at

I felt uneasy until I read Farhad Manjoo’s Kenney debunk in “Was the 2004 Election Stolen? No.” Manjoo quoted experts who argued that exit polls can and are often wrong or misleading. Some of Kennedy’s numbers were misconstrued, Manjoo wrote. But he had little to say about e-voting machines.

Kennedy followed with another story before Election 2006: “Will the Next Election Be Hacked?” Troubling. I turned again to Manjoo. But instead of pooh-poohing, this time Manjoo climbed aboard with “Voting Into the Void.” Manjoo wrote that after the Help America Vote Act and the spending of $4 billion on e-voting machines, those using the machines were becoming increasingly skeptical.

“The new systems are not a panacea,” Manjoo wrote. “And, according to … a growing number of tech-savvy critics, the electronic systems are actually worse than their much-maligned punch-card cousins.”

Add to that the HBO documentary, Hacking Democracy, which follows Seattle activist Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting. Harris’s research backs the idea that “top-secret computerized systems counting the votes in America’s public elections are not only fallible, but also vulnerable to undetectable hacking.”

On YouTube, you can catch Princeton researchers’ nine-minute video demo showing how to hack a voting machine in seconds. There are also clips from Fox News which featured a Princeton researcher demonstrating a vote-stealing virus.

Recently, I took my daughter to see Robin Williams in Man of the Year. The film is about a comedian who wins the presidential election when e-voting machines malfunction.

As we push for bipartisan agendas in the coming two years, here’s one that should make the list.