Hackable Democracy?


Nov. 2, 2006 — -- Come Tuesday, more than 80 percent of American voters will use electronic voting machines to cast their ballot in the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

One-third of those precincts will be using the technology for the first time.

If the primaries and test runs of the machines are to be any indication, Election Day could be teetering on the edge of disaster.

"I think it's going to be a train wreck," said Freddie Oakley, an election supervisor near Sacramento, Calif.

Oakley was stunned when she tested her county's new electronic voting machines and the audio instructions for the visually impaired came out in Vietnamese.

"Vietnamese is a great language, very beautiful and musical," Oakley said, "But we are not persuaded that we have a ton of Vietnamese-speaking blind voters."

The glitch has been fixed -- she hopes -- but election officials nationwide are concerned about how these machines will actually work in their moment of truth amid technical glitches and machine malfunctions that have already surfaced.

In Texas, some electronic ballots were counted up to six times, adding 100,000 erroneous votes to final tallies. In Maryland, machines experienced screen freezes and missing memory cards.

Sixteen states using these machines do not require a paper receipt, making a traditional recount impossible.

Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican up for re-election, is so concerned he's advising the state's voters to turn to paper absentee ballots.

"When what this country is all about -- democracy, secure and safe and accurate vote -- is at risk, which it is in Maryland 2006," Ehrlich said, "you just err on the side of safety."

After the Florida fiasco in 2000, Congress established the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2002 to prevent future election disasters.

The commission's chairman, DeForest Soaries, resigned last year in disgust, saying that lawmakers were never serious about election reform and rushed electronic voting, untested, to polling locations.

"We spent $2.5 billion helping to upgrade voting when, in fact, we are less prepared to guarantee voters that the machines will actually work." Soaries said.

The biggest fear, Soaries says, is that election computers could be tampered with by hackers.

An experiment at Princeton University gave substance to that fear when it took a team of computer scientists mere seconds to break into the widely used Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen machine and introduce a virus that changed the vote count.

"We don't know what happens inside these machines," said Princeton computer science professor Edward Felten, who led the experiment. "We, as citizens, are not allowed to know."

Diebold called the Princeton study "unrealistic and inaccurate."

After a machine demonstration on "Good Morning America" last week, Diebold's director of marketing Mark Radke emphasized the accuracy of the machines.

"The equipment has been tested by federal agencies, by independent agencies," Radke told Diane Sawyer. "And each and every touch-screen unit … is also tested before every election to make sure it's operating correctly and accurately."

Diebold is also demanding that HBO pull a documentary premiering tonight that claims their machines can be easily manipulated to influence election results.

The 85-minute film "Hacking Democracy" follows citizens across the country who demonstrate vulnerabilities of the machines. Diebold, whose machines account for 40 percent of the market, believes the film contains "significant factual errors."

Though late in the process, in the short term, voters have been encouraged by election officials to insist machines are tested and to check their precinct machines for the option of a paper receipt.

In the long term, experts say, the federal government needs to establish a national voting standard and make state requirements regarding functioning machines and paper receipts in the event of a recount.