Secreted Ballots and a War Story

(Far more than you want to read about e-voting and maybe not quite enough about burning airplanes)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the buzz developing around auditless electronic voting machines. Then this morning, in Gets my vote, Doc points to Phil Windley‘s essay, Transparency, eVoting and Copyright. He quotes:

I do not believe that we should be willing to buy or use voting systems where the source code and design is not open for public review. I think there are companies that would be willing to work in this model, particularly if the contract provided some long term commitments. This is not Britney Spears we’re talking about here — the integrity of our voting system is a fundamental component of our government.

Phil Windley is the former CIO for the state of Utah and a Republican, so his advocacy for open source (peer reviewed, really) election systems carries a lot of weight. Read it, and there are some great links.

“Copyright” in his title refers to the fact that Diebold, a leading seller of these machines, is suing people who have downloaded and published Diebold’s internal memos and specs they got off an open FTP server that Diebold operated for code updates (!). If you care to join me in a DMCA violation, you can get the 28 MB zip file or view the docs and memos.

Phil’s essay suggests the important core of the matter. If advocates believe, as he does, that the procurement standards must be questioned, they need to understand that there’s no mass conspiracy by election officials buying the machines at the state and county levels. Rather, they’re deep into a challenging procurement process requiring skills they seldom possess, surrounded by experts with a vested interest in the outcome. He suggests the kind of long-term, deliberate effort that homeowners’ associations are famous for mounting against life-shattering issues like rights to unobstructed views and height restrictions. Do you suppose we citizens will be as determined to protect our right to a fair and open vote?

I hope we can since this seems a more basic issue than the bulk of our political and procedural discussions. We’re talking about an issue that’s so close to the core of the life of our body politic that, like breath itself, we can’t afford to debate it as if it matters no more than, say redistricting. The power to count the votes is the key to the kingdom.

“It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”
                                –attributed to Josef Stalin

“Everything that can be counted doesn’t necessarily count;
  everything that counts can’t necessarily be counted.”
                                 –attributed to Albert Einstein

Obviously some things are more important than others, and accurate voting is surely the high order bit of our society.


Ton Sun Nhut Airport, Saigon, Vietnam was the world’s busiest airport in 1967-68. Operating out of there was like being part of a flying circus, a landing pattern clogged with choppers, 60 mph Cessnas, 250 mph F4 Phantom fighters, civilian airliners and of course, we C-130 crews happy to be arriving in a places serving good food for a change. Trash haulers, as we called ourselves, are always looking for a decent meal to punctuate the tedium of flying into tiny strips guarded by enemy anti-aircraft fire. (not “ack-ack”, a WWII term. This blog seeks to be syntactically precise.)

One day as we were maneuvering to land, the emergency Guard frequency came awake. “Mayday! Mayday, this is Stalwart 34 declaring an emergency. I’m an F4C with one engine out, low oil pressure on no. 2 and bingo fuel. Request immediate landing!”

“Roger Stalwart 34,” came the tower’s surprisingly relaxed reply, “You’re number 3 in the Emergency Traffic Pattern.”

If you fly airplanes for a while, you learn that some issues are more vital than others. For instance, if you can’t get the landing gear down at the same time you need to make a radio report to headquarters, you deal with the gear. I know, I’ve been there.

When you have low hydraulic pressure at the same time you have an engine fire light, you pay attention to the fire and leave the hydraulic pressure for later. I know, I’ve been there.

When you can’t control the airplane at the same time you have a fire light, you first control the airplane, then deal with the fire. I know, I’ve been there.

On 25 June 1968, about 3 miles from Cambodia, our C-130 was struck by .50 cal. machine gun fire that blossomed into a real headache, forcing us to deal with a fire that took out engine no. 1, ignited the left outboard fuel tank, distorted the front wing spar so that the left wing was bending down and forward outside of the no. 1 engine, knocked out the hydraulic system we needed to put the gear down, disabled the left aileron and generally scared the living shit out of five 25-year-old aviators.

The flight lasted only eight minutes and 20 miles but it occupies a larger partition in my brain than many of the several years of my life. The things we need to attend to sometime add up faster than we’d like, with consequences more dire than we’d like.

Hierarchy of Needs

I’m reminded of aviation priorities as I read of strange things happening in the country that I fought for and for which 58,000 of my comrades-in-arms died for. I mistrust alarmism, since most alarms are premature and self-serving. False urgency is such a staple of advertising that we’re inured to it, so that all emergencies seem equally optional. In airplanes and democracies, they aren’t. I think I’m there now.

If your freedom is threatened at the same time your job is threatened, defend your freedom.

If your comfort is threatened at the same time your neighbors’ rights are threatened, forget about your comfort and defend others’ rights as energetically as your own, since they’re identical.

If you can’t be sure your vote will count, at the same time your personal freedom is threatened, make sure your vote is guaranteed to be counted.

There is a statistical trend in politics that only a Polyanna would ignore. Elections that everyone knew were in the bag have improbably gone to the underdog, even though the pre-polling, exit polling and historic voting patterns contradict the reported vote.

Southern Hemisfear

I don’t know why I trust New Zealanders. They just seem to be upstanding, steady folk, outnumbered by sheep, and more co
nservative than we. They don’t seem likely to embrace change for its own sake. So I’m inclined to take seriously a report from a couple of weeks ago, regarding odd results from the Georgia mid-term elections a year ago tonight. These excerpts capture the raw numbers from a long 3-page New Zealand Herald article:

Something very odd happened in the mid-term elections in the US state of Georgia last November.
On the eve of the vote, opinion polls showed Roy Barnes, the incumbent Democratic governor, leading by between 9 and 11 points.

In a somewhat closer, keenly watched Senate race, polls indicated that Max Cleland, the popular Democrat up for re-election, was ahead by two to five points against his Republican challenger, Saxby Chambliss.

Those figures were more or less what political experts would have expected in Georgia, a state with a long tradition of electing Democrats to statewide office.

But then the results came in, and all of Georgia appeared to have been turned upside down.

Barnes lost the governorship to the Republican, Sonny Perdue, 46 per cent to 51 per cent, a swing of as much as 16 percentage points from the last opinion polls.

Cleland lost to Chambliss 46 per cent to 53, a last-minute swing of 9 to 12 points.
Red-faced opinion pollsters suddenly had a lot of explaining to do and launched internal investigations.

…There were also big, puzzling swings in partisan loyalties in different parts of the state.
In 58 counties, the vote was broadly in line with the primary election.

…In 27 counties in Republican-dominated north Georgia, however, Max Cleland unaccountably scored 14 percentage points higher than he had in the primaries.

And in 74 counties in the Democrat-leaning south, Saxby Chambliss garnered a whopping 22 points more for the Republicans than the party as a whole had won less than three months earlier.

Now, weird things like this do occasionally occur in elections, and the figures, on their own, are not proof of anything except statistical anomalies worthy of further study.

But in Georgia there was an extra reason to be suspicious.

Last November, the state became the first in the country to conduct an election entirely with touchscreen voting machines, after lavishing US$54 million on a new system that promised to deliver the securest, most up-to-date, most voter-friendly election in the history of the republic.

The machines, however, turned out to be anything but reliable.

With academic studies showing the Georgia touchscreens to be poorly programmed, full of security holes and prone to tampering, and with thousands of similar machines from different companies being introduced at high speed across the country, computer voting may, in fact, be US democracy’s own 21st century nightmare.

In many Georgia counties last November, the machines froze up, causing long delays as technicians tried to reboot them. In heavily Democratic Fulton County, in downtown Atlanta, 67 memory cards from the voting machines went missing, delaying certification of the results there for 10 days.

In neighbouring DeKalb County, 10 memory cards were unaccounted for; they were later recovered from terminals that had supposedly broken down and been taken out of service. It is still unclear exactly how results from these missing cards were tabulated, or if they were counted at all.

And we will probably never know, for a highly disturbing reason.

The vote count was not conducted by state elections officials, but by the private company that sold Georgia the voting machines in the first place, under a strict trade-secrecy contract that made it not only difficult but actually illegal — on pain of stiff criminal penalties — for the state to touch the equipment or examine the proprietary software to ensure the machines worked properly.

There was not even a paper trail to follow up. The machines were fitted with thermal printing devices that could theoretically provide a written record of voters’ choices,
but these were not activated. Consequently, recounts were impossible.

Georgia was not the only state last November to see big last-minute swings in voting patterns. There were others in Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and New Hampshire — all in races that had been flagged as key partisan battlegrounds, and all eventually won by the Republican Party.

What, then, is one to make of the fact that the owners of the three major computer voting machines are all prominent Republican Party donors?

Or of a recent political fund-raising letter written to Ohio Republicans by Walden O’Dell, Diebold’s chief executive, in which he said he was “committed to helping Ohio to deliver its electoral votes to the president next year” – even as his company was bidding for the contract on the state’s new voting machinery?

…In Dallas, during early voting before last November’s election, people found that no matter how often they tried to press a Democrat button, the Republican candidate’s name would light up.

After a court hearing, Diebold agreed to take down 18 machines with apparent misalignment problems.
“And those were the ones where you could visually spot a problem,” Dr Mercuri said. “What about what you don’t see? Just because your vote shows up on the screen for the Democrats, how do you know it is registering inside the machine for the Democrats?”

Other problems have shown up periodically: machines that register zero votes, or machines that indicate voters coming to the polling station but not voting, even when a single race with just two candidates was on the ballot.

It is not just touchscreens that are at risk from error or malicious intrusion. Any computer system used to tabulate votes is vulnerable.

An optical scan of ballots in Scurry County, Texas last November erroneously declared a landslide victory for the Republican candidate for county commissioner; a subsequent hand recount showed that the Democrat had in fact won.

In Comal County, Texas, a computerised optical scan found that three different candidates had won their races with exactly 18,181 votes. There was no recount or investigation, even though the coincidence, with those recurring 1s and 8s, looked highly suspicious.

In heavily Democrat Broward County, Florida — which had switched to touchscreens in the wake of the hanging chad furore — more than 100,000 votes were found to have gone “missing” on election day.

The votes were reinstated, but the glitch was never adequately explained. One local official blamed it on a “minor software thing”.

Most suspect of all was the governor’s race in Alabama, where the incumbent Democrat, Don Siegelman, was initially declared the winner.

Sometime after midnight, when polling station observers and most staff had gone home, the probate judge responsible for elections in rural Baldwin County suddenly “discovered” that Mr Siegelman had been awarded 7000 votes too many. In a tight election, the change was enough to hand victory to his Republican challenger, Bob Riley.

County officials talked vaguely of computer tabulation error, or a lightning strike messing up the machines, but the real reason was never ascertained because the state’s attorney general (a Republican) refused to authorise a recount or any independent ballot inspection.

Is this just an alarmist reaction? Should we take more than a passing interest in the known but unpublicized catalyst of the year 2000 turmoil? A well-documented tally revision caused the TV networks to reverse their original call
that Gore had won Florida and to give it to Bush instead, prompting Gore’s premature concession call to Bush, later retracted.

The “glitch” was the revision of the Volusia County vote when someone used card ID 3 to overwrite the “master” card ID 0 with a new Gore tally of minus 16,200 votes and plus 4,000 to the Bush total. When discovered, card 0 was re-inserted in the master machine and the tally revised. (The pun’s too tempting: Master card ID 0, $.48; Premature concession, Priceless.).

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding e-voting story. Perhaps we’ll soon be sated with its novelty and with the complexities we must master to glimpse the whole picture. Certainly the press will tire of it and probably already has. Perhaps only the bloggers will have the persistence to keep this story above the fold.

To me though, it feels like molten aluminum dripping off the left wing. There is no larger story.

The ANZAC Treatise

Voting machine irregularities reported by the Kiwis and a solution from the Aussies? It’s enough to make a southern hemisphere junkie weep with joy. Just yesterday, Wired published Aussies Do it Right: E-Voting. It describes eVACS, a program developed by Software Improvements, a down-under open-source solution that might satisfy Mr. Windley:

“While critics in the United States grow more concerned each day about the insecurity of electronic voting machines, Australians designed a system two years ago that addressed and eased most of those concerns: They chose to make the software running their system completely open to public scrutiny.

Although a private Australian company designed the system, it was based on specifications set by independent election officials, who posted the code on the Internet for all to see and evaluate. What’s more, it was accomplished from concept to product in six months. It went through a trial run in a state election in 2001.

Phillip Green, electoral commissioner for the Australian Capital Territory, said that going the open-source route was an obvious choice.

“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,” he said. “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.”

It raises an interesting question. If the Australian Capital Territory knew about our voting machine problems 3 years ago, why don’t we?

Master of my Domains

My small contribution to the effort is to snag a couple of domains, and I imagine them as a way to allow our voting to be so transparent that we collectively overwhelm centralized record-keeping. A couple of other ideas:

  1. Work with manufacturers to place disposable digital camera booths near polling places so millions can capture their voting screen before it disappears.
  2. Establish WiFi web cams viewing the activity around the most suspect polling places.
    (Mitch Ratcliffe and Howard Greenstein have organized as a bona fide press organization with feeds appearing in Google news searches. They might arrange for Press credentials for webcam operators. Is that so, guys?)

The vision:

Politicians who need our votes are acting like they don’t. They’re behaving like the RIAA, pretending they can treat their customers like thieves. Why do we spend so much time worrying about the RIAA and so little time directly managing our elected toadies?

SeeMyVote would be based on our right to enforce full, fair and equal representation, establishing a protocol for translating individual hot issues into votes with teeth.

SeeMyVote would be a database of real people who have abdicated their secret ballot to advertise their real-time responses to current issues and current outrages. The database would match issues and outrage with politicians and their current actions. Voters would link their next vote with their current values and beliefs so that, for instance, a politician’s cynical work against choice would publicly guarantee my wife’s vote against him. Combined with other uppity women, some politicians would see that this particular form of political cynicism is foolish, at least in his district. (Cynical because few politicians give a rat’s ass about right-to-life. They do care about the votes of people who care about abortion).

This is the kind of data which allows politicians to explain to each other why they can’t support each others’ favorite pork barrel. They all know they’re in government in order to stay in government.

Sample SeeMyVote Report:

“The Fleemer amendment to HR 419 has caused a plurality of Mr. Fleemer’s voting constituents to commit to vote him out of office in November. Based on commitment data from 73% of registered voters, It appears that Rep. Fleemer will lose his seat by a 9% margin unless his amendment is withdrawn.

Those voter commitments have been communicated to Mr. Fleemer’s staff, other Republican and Democratic National Committees and major media outlets. The data are presented in detail at"

11:23:30 PM    

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