Many questions hang over the 2012 election. Here’s one almost no one wants to think about: Will the private companies who build and handle voting machines steal the election?
Many questions hang over the 2012 election. What will the unemployment rate be, and will it hurt Barack Obama’s prospects? How will Mitt Romney hold up in one-on-one debates? How will both candidates bridge the enthusiasm gaps in their parties’ bases? Who’ll control Congress? Will Scott Brown or Elizabeth Warren carry the day in Massachusetts?
Here’s one Democrats are asking: Will new state actions requiring photo IDs for voters, purging voter rolls and restricting voter registration drives hurt their candidates?
And here’s one almost no one wants to think about: Will the private companies who build and handle voting machines steal the election?
A few people are trying to sound the alarm. Computer experts warn that touch-screen and optical scan voting systems can be easily hacked. Journalists point to irregularities in past elections. Academics analyze voting tallies and exit polls. Activists probe the policies and the politics of the companies to which America has outsourced its elections.
Here in Massachusetts, Mike Ferriter and Sally Castleman try to get the attention of elected officials, without much luck. They bring videos, expert studies and serious concerns that U.S. elections could be — and may have been — rigged, and get nothing but shrugs.
Conservative Republicans interested in making it harder to vote have money, media, think tanks and lobbyists pushing their solutions through Red State legislatures. The people pushing for an honest, transparent vote-count haven’t even been able to get an appointment with the Massachusetts secretary of state.
There are two questions to answer about the way we now count votes. The first: Can an election be fixed?
The answer to that one is an easy yes. Optical scan vote-counters operate on instructions carried on memory cards. Change those instructions — so that Candidate A starts with an extra 50 votes, for instance, or that every 10th vote for Candidate B will be switched to Candidate A — and you can change the count from that machine. Those instructions can be programmed to disappear once the count is complete.
Experiments in several states have shown such tampering is easy to do. The policies of the voting machine manufacturers, which keep the programming instructions secret even from state election officials, make it impossible to catch.
Computer programmer Clint Curtis testified before Congress that the then-speaker of the Florida House had hired him to write a program that would switch votes in touch-screen voting machines. It was easy.
Votes can be switched in other ways, even without touching the memory cards. Central tabulating machines can be hacked. Some results are transmitted through wifi, and can be adjusted without anyone getting close to the machines.
Internet voting, touted by some as the next modernization on the way, is even more vulnerable. When the District of Columbia invited hackers to test the security of an online voting test run in 2010, it took less than two days for a team from University of Michigan to break in and throw the mayor’s race to Master Control Pro, with HAL 9000 elected council chairman. For good measure, they made the election office computers sing the Michigan fight song.
More disturbing, the Michigan team found some other hackers had also been fiddling with the online voting system, leaving fingerprints from China and Iran.
The second question that springs from a close look at computer voting systems: Have elections already been rigged?
It’s an uncomfortable question, one that risks making the advocates of transparent vote-counting look like conspiracy-mongers. But there are discomforting signs that maybe the worst has already happened.
For decades, for instance, exit polls have been excellent predictors of the final vote. But when computer voting systems began coming into widespread use, people began seeing a disparity between what the exit polls predicted and the actual vote totals. In 2004, exit polls showed Sen. John Kerry beating President George W. Bush in several swing states, including Florida and Ohio. The final votes had the same margin, but with Bush on top.
People were quick to blame the exit polls, especially commentators in the mainstream media. But there were also complaints of computer malfunctions that year in 42 states. In 13 states, including Ohio and Florida, there were widespread complaints from voters who said they tried to vote for Kerry, but the final screen showed they had voted for Bush.
Kerry and the Democrats chose not to pursue those complaints or challenge the results, probably for the same reason Al Gore accepted a deeply flawed vote-count in Florida and the Supreme Court’s unprecedented interference in the 2000 election. If the vote-count is fraudulent, the legitimacy of the election — and, by extension, the government — is undermined. A crisis of legitimacy could be worse for the country than the wrong candidate being elected.
But sweeping difficult questions under the rug doesn’t shore up the legitimacy of our elections. What’s needed is transparency, and that’s what the voting machine companies won’t provide. The paper trails these machines provide is often just another printout with the same results. Not only are the computer programs secret, the companies often retain custody of the original ballots.
Ferriter, of Westborough, and Castleman, of Lexington, and their organization, Election Defense Alliance (www.ElectionDefenseAlliance.org) support a simple alternative: Go back to hand-counting the votes, at least for presidential and congressional contests. Do it with volunteers, under the watchful eyes of representatives from political parties.
They’ve spoken with some Massachusetts legislators about the issue, but nobody’s interested. They’ve been trying to get a meeting with Secretary of State William Galvin, the state’s top election official, with no luck. Galvin wouldn’t return my call on the topic either.
Forty years ago this weekend, a botched break-in at the Watergate led to the unraveling of a White House-led plot to undermine the integrity of the 1972 presidential election. It should be a reminder that when the stakes are so high, someone will always try to cheat.
The threat of unseen computer commands switching thousands of votes in an instant is far more serious than the widely-feared vision of thousands of undocumented immigrants sneaking into polling places without showing photo IDs. At a time when distrust of public institutions has never been higher, it’s crazy to entrust our democracy to mystery boxes maintained by private corporations.
With a vitally important election just five months away, it’s time to ask uncomfortable questions about the security of the vote, and time for elected officials to tell us what they are doing to prevent votes from being stolen without a trace.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.