The Ulster County Town of Olive Says No to

Voting Equipment that Does Not Allow Voters

To Inspect their Ballots

—an investigation by Irv Yarg


On March 2th, the town board in Olive, New York resolved to reject "electronic voting equipment that does not allow voters to inspect their ballots, fails to provide a means by which a meaningful recount may be conducted, or uses software that is not open to public scrutiny." The Olive resolution for "private and secure voting" came eight days after the New York State Assembly had passed A8847, a bill to mandate the use of electronic voting in all elections, and handed it on to the State Senate for approval.

Bert Leifeld, who read the Olive resolution aloud at this month's town board meeting, confided that the issue has been an item of concern at meetings of the Town Supervisor's Association and that opposition to the cyber-vote is fairly uniform amongst Association members.

The Olive resolution notes that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed by Congress in October 2003 "has created the opposite effect" than intended and "is having the unintended consequence of states rushing to purchase computer-voting systems that suffer serious flaws."

The HAVA bill was proposed in the wake of the shocking confusions surrounding the 2000 national election which left many disillusioned voters muttering comments from "This was a stolen election" to "Why vote when we have the Supreme Court to do it for us?" HAVA leveraged the highly publicized "hanging chad" fiasco of the punch card voting system to institute a computerized system which many critics have pointed out has been instrumental in more miscounted and uncounted results not only in Florida but across the nation in recent years.

Introduced on August 4, 2003 by Watertown's six-term Republican-Conservative Senator James W. Wright, the A8847 bill enjoyed bipartisan co-sponsorship by 28 state officials, including Kingston's Kevin Cahill, and passed the Assembly last month without a "nay" vote. Its provisions include the adoption of an official model voting machine: "The state board of elections, upon concurrence of at least three members of such board, shall adopt a single voting machine...to be the sole, exclusive voting machine used at all general, special and primary elections (in New York State)...after July first, two thousand five."

Choices of computer voting machines are limited to a handful of companies which dominate the market, some of them foreign-owned and some with specific political affiliations and even ties to organized crime. In December, for instance, Bev Harris, author of a recent book on the e-vote issue called Black Box Voting, alleged that at least five managers of a Diebold Corporation subsidiary (a major e-vote machine vendor suspected of irregularities in the 2000 Florida results) were felons with backgrounds in stock fraud, computer record falsification and cocaine trafficking. Other allegations circle Sequoia, ES&S (Election Systems & Software ) and other e-vote firms. Oversight of these private sector regions seems to be a neglected area of the structural leap to cybervote.

"Alarmingly, under U.S. federal law, no background checks are required on these companies or their employees," notes electro-vote researcher Lynn Landes at the EcoTalk.org. website, which maintains a public watch on the issue. "Felons and foreigners can, and do, own computer voting machine companies." [My emphasis.]

Many critics charge that the system put in place to uphold the integrity of democratic elections has succeeded only in making vote fraud easier and less detectable. A number of studies have revealed cyber-voting systems to be open to manipulation from both inside and outside the system. Touch-screen system voting can also eliminate or control the evidence for a recount, making detection of error or fraud difficult to impossible. "Trojan Horse" programs are able to change totals and cover their tracks while hackers with simple tools have demonstrated an ability to alter results on e-machines in the time it takes to close the curtain and cast a vote.

The numerous drawbacks, like internal modems which allow machines to be communicated with while in operation and other serious flaws detected in studies by the computer scientist Aviel Rubin, Technical Director of Information Security Institute at John Hopkins University; the non-partisan Voting Integrity Project of Arlington, Virginia and other investigators, are not unknown to lawmakers. Reform bills sponsored by individuals like Rep. Hannah Pingree (D-Maine) and Rep. Rush Holt's (D-NJ) H.R. 2239- Voter Confidence Act of 2003 (co-sponsored by presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich) address some of these problems and New York's A8847 acknowledges the need for a "paper trail" but other experts have pointed out the ease with which such safeguards can be circumvented by software design... (i.e., Simply program DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) systems to respond accurately to a printout request while registering the actual count otherwise. Diebold, for instance, has been accused of employing uncertified software to ponderous effect as recently as last year's California recall poll.)

In an age wherein we have witnessed a sudden, last minute flood of votes for one candidate coming in while a batch of his/hers opponent's ballots disappear into another column (or entirely) have electronically swung more than a few elections, New York's A8847 bill calls for manual audit of voter verifiable audit records of only 2% of the vote... "provided such records were not also impaired by the electronic operational failure of the voting machine." Okay, and we'll pick the two percent to test...doesn't seem like a remedy for the Florida vote...

A8847 also leaves question marks hanging over the ownership of such machines. While HAVA proposes $3.8 billion aid to states for purchase of the tabulators and New York plans on spending $360 million, there may not be enough to go around. Priced from $3 thousand to $8 thousand apiece, the bill points out that the state board of elections shall not be required to provide all voting machines a county might need nor prevent counties from purchasing their own (approved) machines. However, enough machines WILL be required in proportion to voter registration records of November 1, 2002.

Communities which may not be able to purchase machines may be authorized to "rent or borrow a limited number of one such type of equipment for use in a primary, special, general or village election." Apparently, private enterprise can horn in here: "Any person or corporation owning or being interested in any voting or ballot counting machine may apply to have the state board of elections examine such machine. Such applicant shall pay to the board before the examination a fee equal to the cost of such examination, or forty thousand dollars, whichever is less." Free enterprise, indeed.

Such private ownership raises another flurry of potential problems and one of the keys to the harshly critical response to the private vendors is that their software is protected intellectual property and cannot be publicly examined. The Australians solved this particular problem in 2001 by using 'open source' software.

"We'd been watching what had happened in America (in 2000), and we were wary of using proprietary software that no one was allowed to see," said Aussie election commissioner Philip Green to Wired Newson November 3, 2003, "We were very keen for the whole process to be transparent so that everyone-- particularly the political parties and the candidates, but also the world at large-- could be satisfied that the software was actually doing what it was meant to be doing."

Evidence of fixed elections in the past is not hard to come by but, in the present and the future, all bets are off. Diebold, who stands to profit as handsomely through the HAVA windfall- as will major pharmaceutical concerns in the recently enacted African AIDS drug relief program wherein critics have claimed that companies have recourse to unload their ineffectual remedies- is well aware of the flaws in their software. This was verified when a hacker broke into their internal discussions archive last August and spilled the beans, revealing their inner secrets on the worldwide web. Despite this, Diebold has 33,000 machines being used in U.S. elections and are about to pump that up enormously.

This is not to target one company and certainly not to say that only the devotees of one particular political party are crooked enough to cheat in such high stakes contests. The sad historical record testifies otherwise. However, in today's scenario, the vested interests of e-vote corporations do tend to dominate one side of the aisle. Diebold's CEO, Walden O'Dell, for instance, is a top fund-raiser for President George W. Bush's campaigns and a visitor to his private ranch, who, according to a widely quoted story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was humbled to apologize in August for publicly voicing his commitment to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to the GOP. Such statements from a manufacturer of vote tallying devices scarcely reflects an impartial commitment to democratic principles. In fact, it blatantly echoes the sage observation of Josef Stalin, as quoted in the late Collier brothers' 1992 ground-breaking book on election fraud, Votescam, that it is not voters who hold power in a democracy; it is those who COUNT the votes.

-Irv Yarg

Professor Rubin's detailed study is available at www.avirubin.com/vote.pdf