What the hack?

Nov 8, 2006 at 12:00 am

As this paper goes to press on Monday, the results of Election Day are not yet known. What's disturbing to people such as Jan BenDor is the possibility that even after votes have been cast and the results announced, residents of Michigan will still not know for sure who really won.

BenDor, the assistant clerk in Pittsfield Township, is coordinator for the Michigan Election Reform Alliance (MERA). The group warns that the electronic voting machines used in this state are susceptible to tampering.

"The problems and security risks already encountered in Michigan with electronic vote tabulators have raised grave issues for this fall's election," the group contends on its Web site (lapn.net/mera).

Fear of tainted elections extends beyond Michigan. The issue has been receiving heightened scrutiny since the debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and was further fueled by problems in Ohio during the 2004 presidential contest.

Last week HBO released the documentary Hacking Democracy, which looks at the efforts of Washington state resident Bev Harris, founder of the nonprofit watchdog group Black Box Voting (blackboxvoting.org). The documentary appears to prove that election equipment produced by the Diebold company can by altered to produce sham tallies. Although Diebold denies the allegation and claims the HBO film is rife with inaccuracies, independent studies indicate the machines are indeed vulnerable to tampering.

Here in Michigan, the office of Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, the state's top election official, contends that procedures are in place that guard against illegal vote manipulation. Equipment is supposed to be checked for accuracy the week prior to an election and then securely stored until Election Day.

BenDor and others say security measures could prove to be inadequate. To prove the concerns aren't just theoretical, members of her group claim to have recently removed the memory card from a Diebold Accuvote optical scan voting machine without breaking the seal that's supposed to protect against unauthorized access to the cards, which control the machines' tabulation functions.

BenDor's husband, Michael-David BenDor, tells Metro Times it took him less than five minutes to remove the memory card without breaking the protective seal.

"If you can change the card, you can change the program on the Accuvote, and you can change what the vote totals will be," he says. "I showed that you can open a machine, take out the card and put a new one in without disturbing the seal."

All it took was a Phillips head screwdriver and two wrenches, BenDor says.

Harris of Black Box Voting tells Metro Times her group was able to do the same thing on a Diebold machine they purchased.

Although some states use touch-screen machines that leave no paper trail, Michigan residents cast their votes using paper ballots that are then tabulated electronically. Diebold machines tally about 30 percent of the votes cast in Michigan, according to the Michigan Election Reform Alliance.

Equipment produced by two other manufacturers generates similar concerns, says Jan BenDor, but Diebold has become the issue's lightening rod — for good reason.

In 2004, the company reached a multimillion-dollar settlement in a suit brought by the California attorney general, who alleged that the company made false claims about the security of its machines. The year prior to that, Walden O'Dell, the Diebold CEO who has since resigned, sent a fund-raising letter to Ohio Republicans (Diebold is based in Ohio and its machines are used there) saying he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes" to Bush as he sought re-election.

And now there's the HBO documentary, which shows a test being conducted under the eye of a Florida election official who watches as a hacked memory card changes a vote count while leaving no trace.

To ensure the accuracy of the vote here, some local election officials in Michigan had intended to do random audits once the polls closed on Election Day. The plan was to hand-count paper ballots and compare them to electronic tabulations in randomly selected races.

Such a procedure was recently recommended following a study conducted by the University of Connecticut's Voting Technology Research Center. New Hampshire will conduct random audits in all voting precincts. In all, according to MERA, 14 states planned to some sort of hand-counted audit this election.

However, elections officials from the Michigan secretary of state's office informed local officials that doing such an audit violated state law. Kelly Chesney, spokesperson for Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, says the procedure for handling ballots is clearly outlined, and that once polls close, ballots are to be locked in a box and secured so that if a candidate questions election results they can be recounted.

Interestingly, Land announced a list of proposed reforms earlier this year that included seeking legislation that would specifically authorize hand-recount audits. But her office apparently failed to seek such a legislative change.

Land, a Republican running for re-election, has fueled skepticism by failing to seek such legislation and then ordering local officials not to do audits.

Various experts contacted by Metro Times disagreed as to whether local voting officials have the authority to conduct audits if they so choose. That doesn't surprise Jocelyn M. Benson, an associate professor at Wayne State University's law school who specializes in election law. She says it's a "fuzzy" issue open to interpretation.

Benson and others, such as Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum, advocate pursuing legislation of the type Land proposed earlier this year to clarify the situation so that there's no debate during future elections.

Although advocating that audits be conducted, Jan BenDor contends it doesn't go far enough. Because companies such as Diebold refuse to release what they deem "proprietary" information about the way their machines operate, the public is being kept in the dark about how their votes are being counted, and that's unacceptable. Aside from the fact these companies are reaping "horrendous" profits, says BenDor, there is something fundamentally wrong in having privately run corporations having so much control over something as fundamental and essential to democracy as vote counting.

"What we should do," she says, "is start from scratch and establish a publicly funded research institute that would create the most secure system possible. We could do that for a very low cost."

Especially, she says, when compared to the social cost of having citizens lose all faith that their votes are being honestly counted.

"We intend to stay on this," says BenDor. "Voting is the most precious thing that happens in a democracy. If you didn't have votes you would have bullets, and I don't think anybody wants that."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]