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Black Box Voting

Black Box Voting

With counties all over the US rushing to replace creaking mechanical voting machines in the lead up to the 2004 election, fears that a new generation of computerised voting systems are intrinsically open to vote rigging just won’t go away.

The plot has thickened significantly since our July report of revelations from Scoop ( www.scoop.co.nz), a self-described “fiercely independent” Internet news agency rapidly developing a reputation in the US for its groundbreaking investigative news stories, about the potential for fraud in America's increasingly high-tech elections.

Scoop writer Alastair Thomson was the first to reveal that extensive research by computer programmers and journalists working around the globe on the actual software distributed by one of the largest voting systems companies operating in the recent US Elections had found massive potential for vote tampering.

The flaws were first — and entirely accidentally — discovered by Seattle resident Bev Harris, who runs a small public relations business. She will shortly release a book on the subject: Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century.

Harris had uncovered “some 40,000 files that included user manuals, source code and executable files for voting machines made by Diebold, a corporation based in North Canton, Ohio,” and was claiming they exposed the massive flaws in Diebold’s software which meant that votes could easily be manipulated. Since Scoop’s initial report debate about Harris’ findings has moved from the Internet to CNN, to UK newspapers, and the pages of The New York Times.

And the revelations just keep on coming. On July 30 AlterNet.org published a report by nationally syndicated daily talk show host and author Thom Hartmann entitled “The Theft of Your Vote Is Just a Chip Away” in which he wrote “People are cautiously beginning to connect the dots, and the picture that seems to be emerging is troubling.”

He quoted an Associated Press story released a few days after the 2002 election which claimed a defective computer chip in (Texas’ Snyder county) optical scanner had misread ballots and incorrectly tallied a landslide victory for Republicans, although "Democrats actually won by wide margins."

Only the suspicions of poll workers prevented Republicans from carrying the day after a hand recount of the optical-scan ballots showed that the Democrat had indeed won, even though the computerised ballot-scanning machine kept giving the race to the Republican. Hartmann’s report also detailed numbers of other startling results coming out of the 2002 election where the voting machines seemed to have incorrectly advantaged Republican candidates.

On August 21 The Seattle Times reported Harris’ analysis and a more sober analysis by computer scientists from Johns Hopkins and Rice universities which, after reviewing the Diebold source code, branded the machines' protective software "far below even the most minimal security standards," warning that election insiders or voters with fake "smart cards" could manipulate the vote.

Diebold has rebutted the claims and the Hopkins-Rice study has also been tainted by claims one of its researchers had a financial stake in a Diebold competitor.

But still the doubts remain. Before the Diebold site holding the files was closed, Harris downloaded software for Diebold's Global Election Management System (GEMS), which counts votes in King County and 1000 other counties and cities in several US states.

She has since published on her Web site details of how she changed the votes of two Georgia senatorial candidates in an election simulation — and then covered her tracks so the vote tampering would not be detected. "All you have to do is go in the back door, and you can change it," she said.

Diebold dismissed Harris' simulated vote rigging, saying election supervisors would detect any manipulation of votes.

But on August 28th Ohio’s largest newspaper, The Plain Dealer, reported that the head of Diebold, which is vying to sell voting machines in Ohio, told Republicans in a recent fund-raising letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

Its report claims the August 14 letter from Walden O'Dell, chief executive of Diebold — who has become active in the re-election effort of President Bush — prompted Democrats this week to question the propriety of allowing O'Dell's company to calculate votes in the 2004 presidential election.

“O'Dell attended a strategy pow-wow with wealthy Bush benefactors — known as Rangers and Pioneers — at the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch earlier this month. The next week, he penned invitations to a $1000-a-plate fund-raiser to benefit the Ohio Republican Party's federal campaign fund — partially benefiting Bush — at his mansion in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington,” The Plain Dealer reports.

“The letter went out the day before Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, also a Republican, was set to qualify Diebold as one of three firms eligible to sell upgraded electronic voting machines to Ohio counties in time for the 2004 election.”

A court challenge over the fairness of the selection process has left Blackwell's announcement temporarily in limbo. A Diebold spokeswoman defended the letter, saying O'Dell held fund raisers for many causes.

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