Report — From the November 2012 issue

How to Rig an Election

The G.O.P. aims to paint the country red

( 4 of 10 )

The spread of computerized voting has carried with it an enormous potential for electronic skulduggery. In 2003, Bev Harris, a citizen sleuth and the author of Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century, made a shocking and game-changing discovery: Diebold, then one of the primary manufacturers of voting machines, had left the 40,000 files that made up its Global Election Management System (GEMS) on a publicly accessible website, entirely unprotected. Diebold was never able to explain how its proprietary tabulation program ended up in such an exposed position. Harris downloaded the files, and programmers worldwide pounced, probing the code for weaknesses. “The wall of secrecy,” said Harris, “began to crumble.”

GEMS turned out to be a vote rigger’s dream. According to Harris’s analysis, it could be hacked, remotely or on-site, using any off-the-shelf version of Microsoft Access, and password protection was missing for supervisor functions. Not only could multiple users gain access to the system after only one had logged in, but unencrypted audit logs allowed any trace of vote rigging to be wiped from the record.

The public unmasking of GEMS by an average citizen (who was not a programmer herself) served as a belated wake-up call to the world’s leading computer-security experts, who finally turned their attention to America’s most widely used voting systems. Damning reports have since been issued by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Rice, and Stanford Universities, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Government Accountability Office (none of them institutions hospitable to “tinfoil hat” conspiracy theorists). Experts describe appalling security flaws, from the potential for system-wide vote-rigging viruses to the use of cheap, easily replicated keys—the same kind used on jukeboxes and hotel minibars—to open the machines themselves. In 2005, the nonpartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, stated unequivocally that the greatest threats to secure voting are insiders with direct access to the machines: “There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry any more than in other industries.”

As recently as September 2011, a team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory hacked into one of Diebold’s old Accuvote touchscreen systems. Their report asserted that anyone with $26 in parts and an eighth-grade science education would be able to manipulate the outcome of an election. “This is a national security issue,” wrote the Argonne team leader, Roger Johnston, using the sort of language that would normally set off alarm bells in our security-obsessed culture. Yet his warning has gone unheeded, and the Accuvote-TSX, now manufactured by ES&S, will be used in twenty states by more than 26 million voters in the 2012 general election.

Johnston’s group also breached a system made by another industry giant, Sequoia, using the same “man in the middle” hack—a tiny wireless component that is inserted between the display screen and the main circuit board—which requires no knowledge of the actual voting software. The Sequoia machine will be used in four states by nearly 9 million voters in 2012.

Why did a physicist choose to hack into voting machines? “This was basically a weekend project,” Johnston told me, expressing his amazement at the meager funding available to examine America’s voting systems. “We did it because a lot of people looking at the machines are cybersecurity experts and programmers—and when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. They were largely looking at sophisticated, cyber-based attacks. But there are simple physical attacks, as we proved, that are easier to do and harder to prevent.”

The voting-machine companies never responded to the Argonne reports. “That’s not unusual,” says Johnston. “The manufacturers seem to be in denial on some of these issues.”

Why the denial? There are at least 3.9 billion good reasons. In 2002, George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), offering states $3.9 billion in subsidies to modernize their election administration and equipment, purportedly in response to Florida’s hanging-chad fiasco of 2000. HAVA mandated that every polling place provide at least one voting system that allowed disabled people to vote with the same “privacy and independence” accorded to nondisabled voters. Thanks to confusing language in HAVA itself, and even a misleading report issued by the Congressional Research Service, one might easily assume that the mandate called for the purchase of DRE machines. In this way, the blind and visually impaired were unwittingly used as pawns to advance the agenda of the voting-machine industry. One election supervisor claims that Diebold went so far as to send him threatening letters after he sought out less expensive alternatives to service the disabled, even when these machines were compatible with Diebold’s systems.

This was not the only deception surrounding the rollout of these electoral Trojan horses. In a 2007 Dan Rather exposé, The Trouble with Touch Screens, seven whistle-blowers at Sequoia charged that company executives had forced them to use inferior paper stock for ballots during the 2000 election. What’s more, said the whistle-blowers, they had been instructed to misalign the chads on punch cards destined for the Democratic stronghold of Palm Beach County. “My own personal opinion was the touchscreen-voting system wasn’t getting off the ground like they would hope,” said Greg Smith, a thirty-two-year Sequoia employee. “So, I feel like they deliberately did all this to have problems with the paper ballots.”

Such blockbuster allegations are perhaps unsurprising given the group of Beltway insiders who helped to pass HAVA. One central player was former Republican representative Bob Ney of Ohio, sentenced in 2006 to thirty months in prison for crimes connected with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff—whose firm was paid at least $275,000 by Diebold.

HAVA’s impact has been huge, accelerating a deterioration of our electoral system that most Americans have yet to recognize, let alone understand. We are literally losing our ballot—the key physical proof of our power as citizens.

Even a former major elections official has heaped scorn upon HAVA’s mission. DeForest Soaries was appointed by George W. Bush to head the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which HAVA created to oversee security standards for new voting devices. Soaries stepped down in 2005, calling his office a “charade” and claiming that he had been deceived by both the White House and Congress. Washington politicians, Soaries declared in a 2006 radio interview, have apparently concluded that our voting system can’t be all that bad—after all, it got them elected. “But there’s an erosion of voting rights implicit in our inability to trust the technology that we use,” he added. “And if we were another country being analyzed by America, we would conclude that this country is ripe for stealing elections and for fraud.”

is a writer and election-integrity activist living in Mexico.

More from Victoria Collier:

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

Facing the Furies

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Climate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Duce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Prayer’s Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content