Electronic Voting

Sunday, 7 December 2003

When electronic voting was proposed in the aftermath of the 2000 Florida debacle, it seemed like a good idea. No more hanging chads, dimpled chads, or swinging chads. Electronic voting with touch-screen computers offered a surefire solution to the problems experienced in Florida. Now, however, electronic voting has itself become a cause for serious concern.

It started when Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold and a staunch Bush supporter, promised to deliver the state of Ohio to the Republicans in the 2004 election. The problem is that Diebold manufactures touch-screen computers that are used to count votes. Suddenly O'Dell's boast sounded sinister. I think it was just an idle boast, made without considering the consequences, but sinister or not, it raised the question of whether computerized votes could be tampered with.

The answer is yes, it is possible to tamper with votes on a computer. Any third-rate hacker knows that. How could it be done? First, the software could be written in such a way as to miscount the actual votes, either by entering pre-determined results or by programming the computer to count every tenth vote for candidate A as a vote for candidate B. Second, the vote totals could be altered when they were being transferred from individual computers in a precinct to the master precinct computer, either by a program existing on the master computer or by a hacker who intercepts the transfer, probably by using a packet sniffer, and changes the numbers. Third, the numbers could be altered when they were transferred from the individual precincts to the state's (or county's, etc.) central computer, by the same means as described above. Fourth, a hacker could hack into any computer used in the voting process that was connected to the Internet and alter the results while they sat in a database. Fifth, election officials or others with access to the computers could log into the computers directly and change the results.

In addition to malicious, intentional tampering, there is also the possibility that the vote total could be changed by accident, by faulty software. If it seems unlikely that such a simple process as tallying votes could be misprogrammed, read on.

Some people have suggested that votes have already been tampered with, either intentionally or accidentally. The 2002 Georgia elections used touch-screen computers, and the results of several races shocked pollsters. The incumbent governor and U.S. senator were thrown out of office, and the state legislature became controlled by Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction. While it is possible that the results were valid--after all, most other Southern states have long since elected Republicans to such offices--the fact that the results were contrary to what pollsters expected, in some cases by margins of ten or fifteen percent, has raised some eyebrows. Odd results in certain areas of Virginia, Indiana, and California suggest accidental errors caused by programming errors. Examples include having more voters vote in a county than were registered, recording 100% voter turnout in several large counties, or subtracting one in every hundred votes. It's quite possible then, even probable, that many votes already cast by voters using touch-screen computers have not been counted properly.

Touch screen computers do offer real advantages to voters and election officials, but only if certain measures are taken.

There is a real danger that U.S. elections can be hijacked by unscrupulous corporations, politicians, or hackers. I will go even further and say that, if it hasn't already happened, some future election will be hijacked, votes will be altered, and American democracy will cease to function, unless important steps are taken to ensure that electronic voting is properly regulated, not by corporations, but by the U.S. government.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology