Votescam 2000
                     The Real Scandal Is the Voting Machines Themselves
                     Jonathan Vankin
                     New York Press
                     December 13, 2000
                     vol 13 no 50

                     The ongoing electoral insanity has confirmed something
                     that I and a small number of people who have
                     occasionally thought about these things have known for
                     a while: Over the past three-and-a-half decades we in
                     the United States have sold out our election
                     process–which, unless I’m very much mistaken, is the
                     foundation of our democracy (such as it is)–to a small
                     but lucrative cadre of for-profit businesses and their
                     wildly defective products. Which they manufactured, in
                     some cases, many years ago, but which are still used to
                     tally votes today. The real scandal of this election is that
                     most of the problems in the voting and vote-counting
                     systems have been well-known for years, and no one
                     has done a damn thing about them.More than 11 years
                     ago, I wrote a detailed article titled "Vote of No
                     Confidence" for the Silicon Valley weekly, Metro. In the
                     article, I discussed how "The next president of the
                     United States may not be chosen by the voters. Instead,
                     he may be the choice of whoever controls or
                     manipulates the computer systems that tally the votes."
                     The now famous "hanging chad" was but one small
                     aspect of this story. (Until last month, I was one of the
                     few citizens of the United States who had actually heard,
                     much less uttered, the words "hanging chad.")

                     A deeper problem lay in the security and integrity of the
                     software used to run the vote count. The software for
                     most of the machines, I learned, was
                     incomprehensible–what computer scientists described
                     as "spaghetti code" and "a bucket of worms," prone to
                     error and vulnerable to deliberate manipulation in a way
                     that would be, for all purposes, undetectable. An
                     ethically challenged software engineer could write a little
                     program to make the count come out however he
                     wanted it to, and no one would ever know. Even if a
                     fraudulent program were detectable, someone would
                     have to look at it first to detect it. And that was
                     impossible, because the private companies that owned
                     the software considered the code a protected trade

                     In fact, there are today two companies that dominate the
                     industry. Election Systems & Software, whose machines
                     count about 60 percent of the votes nationwide, and
                     Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment of Jamestown, NY. In
                     1993, Sequoia Pacific won a $60 million contract from
                     New York City to take the city into the electronic voting
                     age–only to have the contract ditched this year.

                     No one is saying that those companies, or any of their
                     much smaller would-be competitors, don’t try their
                     best–and certainly not that they’re dishonest. The flaws
                     are inherent to computerized voting systems. I found, 11
                     years ago, that there was no particular reason to trust
                     the outcome of any election in the United States
                     anymore. At least not those counted by computer, which
                     is most of them.

                     Since 1989 there has been no reason to update that
                     opinion. Despite having authored that retroactively
                     prescient article, filled with startling facts about the iffy
                     nature of American elections, I have not, over the past
                     decade, spent an undue amount of time waiting by the
                     mailbox for my Pulitzer Prize. Why not? Because I was
                     hardly the first person to make note of these facts. No
                     less a source than The New York Times ran a series
                     about the vulnerability of elections in 1985, by reporter
                     David Burnham, who also wrote the book The Rise of
                     the Computer State.

                     As early as 1974, the U.S. General Accounting Office
                     commissioned a study that found significant accuracy
                     and security problems in the methods used to count
                     votes by computer. In 1986, the California Attorney
                     General’s office released a report criticizing
                     computerized vote-counting systems for "lacking a
                     reliable audit trail and having a program structure that is
                     very difficult even for computer professionals to
                     understand." In 1988, the National Institute of Standards
                     and Technology (then called the National Bureau of
                     Standards) released a study by computer scientist Roy.
                     G. Saltman that concluded, in the typically understated
                     language of government documents, that "it has been
                     clearly shown that audit trails that document election
                     results, as well as general practices to assure accuracy,
                     integrity and security, can be considerably improved."

                     Somewhat more bluntly, Computer Professionals for
                     Social Responsibility followed up on Saltman’s report in
                     their fall 1988 newsletter, declaring: "America’s
                     fundamental democratic institution is ripe for abuse... It
                     is ridiculous for our country to run such a haphazard,
                     easily violated election system. If we are to retain
                     confidence in our election results, we must institute
                     adequate security procedures in computerized vote
                     tallying, and return election control to the citizenry."

                     Also in 1988 (something of a watershed year for
                     computer-voting exposes), the journalist Ronnie Dugger,
                     founder of The Texas Observer, authored a
                     staggeringly long and meticulously researched essay for
                     The New Yorker (when The New Yorker was still
                     publishing staggeringly long and meticulously
                     researched essays) in which he singled out the
                     "Vote-o-Matic" system in particular–still a popular
                     computer voting system, and the very one used in those
                     disputed Florida counties–as possibly "disenfranchising
                     hundreds of thousands of voters."

                     Dugger explained how computer systems that tabulate
                     elections are shot through with error and wide open to
                     what, more recently, James Baker might call "mischief."
                     I talked to Dugger back in 1989, when I was writing my
                     own article. Freed from the genteel strictures of New
                     Yorker house style, he told me, "The whole damn thing
                     is mind-boggling. They could steal the presidency."


                     Computerized vote-counting is a terrible system. This is
                     only news to those who haven’t been paying attention.
                     Every problem that’s arisen in the 2000 election has
                     been on the public record for more than a decade. Yet
                     here we are. Why?

                     My first thought was that less-wealthy counties can’t
                     afford the latest technology. They’re stuck with outdated
                     systems like the Vote-o-Matic, for reasons of pure
                     economics. But David Lublin doesn’t think so. He
                     teaches in the American University School of Public
                     Affairs Dept. of Government, and is now on his second
                     grant from the National Science Foundation to collect
                     election data from around the country.

                     "I wouldn’t say the wealthier places always have better
                     or well-conducted elections," he says. "Often that is the
                     case, but there are surprising exceptions. It depends on
                     the willingness of the local county authority to spend the
                     money, or the state to require them to do it."

                     Nor, for that matter, is increasingly sophisticated
                     computer technology the answer. In fact, it may only
                     make the problems even worse. For example, the next
                     generation of voting computers what are what’s known
                     as DREs ("Direct Recording Electronic"), kind of voting
                     ATMs that allow voters to cast ballot-free votes on a
                     video monitor by pressing buttons, or even on a touch

                     "DREs are even worse," says Rebecca Mercuri, a
                     computer scientist at Bryn Mawr who’s studied
                     computerized elections for more than 10 years and
                     recently finished her doctoral dissertation on that exact
                     topic at the University of Pennsylvania. DREs leave no
                     "audit trail" (paper trail) whatsoever, she points out.
                     Votes are recorded directly onto a memory cartridge.
                     There is absolutely nothing to ensure that the vote that
                     registers on the screen is the vote that gets recorded on
                     the cartridge, or that the vote that is recorded on the
                     cartridge is the vote that prints out on paper.

                     "Unless the voter sees that paper trail, how do they
                     know?" she says. "I could teach a 12-year-old to write a
                     program that shows one thing on the screen and another
                     thing on the printout."

                     While some newer election computing companies say
                     they’ve figured out how to create a foolproof electronic
                     audit trail, Mercuri dismisses such claims as
                     "preposterous." There’s no way to make sure that
                     software is 100 percent pure. "If we could do that in
                     computer science, we’d have the virus problem solved,"
                     she says.

                     Since computers were first used to count votes in the
                     early 1960s, there have been dozens of instances of
                     computer error in elections. And that’s counting only the
                     known errors. There have been no verified frauds, but
                     that may be only because computer fraud is nearly
                     impossible to verify. Former Florida Gov. Kenneth
                     "Buddy" MacKay suggested last week to Carl Bernstein
                     (in an article on the website that computer
                     fraud may have been behind his highly suspicious 1988
                     Senate loss to Connie Mack. MacKay lost by 33,000
                     votes out of four million. In a development that
                     foreshadowed what happened this year, the tv networks
                     had "called" a MacKay victory only to later tell their
                     viewers "never mind."

                     Funny thing was, in four large counties–Miami-Dade,
                     Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough–200,000 fewer
                     voters registered votes in the Senate race than in the
                     presidential race. That’s a 20 percent drop-off. In other
                     counties, and in earlier elections, the drop-off was
                     around 1 percent. Computer error or tampering remains
                     the most likely explanation for the alarming discrepancy,
                     though none was ever proved. MacKay tried to get a
                     look at the source code for the vote-counting software
                     but was rebuffed by the election equipment companies
                     who declared it proprietary.

                     "What could have happened in 1988," MacKay told
                     Bernstein last week, "was that the machines could have
                     been programmed so that in my big precincts every
                     tenth vote got counted wrong."

                     Another "Sore Loserman," perhaps? Maybe–but
                     MacKay was echoing what Peter Neumann, principal
                     scientist at SRI International’s Menlo Park, CA,
                     computer lab (and author of the 1995 book
                     Computer-Related Risks), said back then. Writing
                     about the MacKay-Mack election in Risks Digest,
                     Neumann noted, "Remembering that these computer
                     systems reportedly permit operators to turn off the audit
                     trails and to change arbitrary memory locations on the
                     fly, it seems natural to wonder whether anything fishy
                     went on."

                     Here are a few other amusing anecdotes from the
                     annals of wacky election computing:

                     In Middlesex County, NJ, this year, a DRE vote-counting
                     computer went on the fritz. It recorded votes for both the
                     Republican and Democratic candidates in the county
                     freeholder’s race, but simply wiped out all votes for their
                     respective runningmates.

                     In the 1985 Dallas, TX, mayor’s race, Starke Taylor
                     defeated Max Goldblatt in an election so controversial
                     that it led the Texas legislature to investigate the flaws in
                     the state’s computerized vote-tabulation process.
                     Allegedly, according to the Dallas Morning News, a
                     computer had been shut off and given "new instructions"
                     after it showed Goldblatt leading by 400 votes.

                     During the Democratic presidential primary of 1980, in
                     Orange County, CA, a "programmer’s error" gave about
                     15,000 votes cast for Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy to
                     Jerry Brown–and, of all people, Lyndon LaRouche.

                     There are many more such tales. Computers in
                     Oklahoma skipped 10 percent of the ballots in a 1986
                     election. A power surge in San Francisco switched
                     votes from one candidate to another. A Moline, IL, city
                     alderman actually took office in 1985 only to step down
                     three months later when someone figured out that a
                     machine had misread hundreds of ballots due to a bad
                     "timing belt."

                     You get the picture. The Dallas case prompted the
                     Texas Secretary of State to direct that, in future
                     elections, a "manual recount" could be ordered to
                     "ensure the accuracy of the count." The actual ballots,
                     the computer punch cards themselves, are the only
                     existing "audit trail," to document how people actually


                     I don’t want to appear "partisan," but with all of these
                     well-documented facts, it seemed to me that the
                     Republican idea that machine counts are better than
                     human counts is patently absurd. So I called up Bob
                     Swartz, founder of Pennsylvania-based Cardamation,
                     one of the nation’s largest makers and sellers of
                     computer punch cards and card-reading machines. (Not
                     many companies are in that field anymore.) Swartz has
                     been in the punch-card business for 40 years, though he
                     doesn’t do election business anymore. I thought that
                     made him a good person to ask.

                     Turns out, in his line of work, looking at computer cards
                     with your own eyes is standard procedure. "We didn’t
                     call it a ‘hand count.’ We just called it ‘looking at the
                     cards,’" he says. "We read the cards through the
                     machine twice, and if there are differences we look at
                     the cards. If our goal is to get 100 percent accuracy,
                     there’s no question that’s the way to achieve it."

                     Swartz fully expects card-reading machines to make
                     mistakes. It’s when they do not make mistakes that he
                     gets suspicious. "If you recount 400,000 votes and
                     there’s no difference," he says, "someone fudged the

                     No election system can ever be fraudproof or error-free.
                     That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve on the
                     dismal systems we’re using today. It just seems that
                     casting votes on paper ballots, then counting and
                     recounting them by hand, is the surest way to figure out
                     who really won an election. Assuming mostly honest
                     personnel, and barring breathtaking acts of ineptitude,
                     human vote-counters will not, generally speaking,
                     discard ballots by the thousands on a mere whim. Nor
                     will they, unless they are severely reading-deficient or
                     insane, record votes cast for one candidate as votes
                     cast for another candidate.

                     Further, it is much more conspicuous for a dishonest
                     election official to issue new instructions to a group of
                     human beings midway through a counting session than it
                     is for a dishonest computer programmer to type a few
                     new lines of code into a machine. Perhaps most
                     importantly, there is nothing "proprietary" about a person
                     picking up pieces of paper and going "one for this guy,
                     one for that guy." If Americans, or at least the television
                     networks Americans like to watch, weren’t so damned
                     impatient, conducting elections completely on paper
                     ballots would be the most sensible solution.
                     Noncomputerized elections take a lot longer to produce
                     results, there’s no denying that. But we don’t hold
                     elections all that often in this country. We wait four years
                     to vote for president. We can’t wait another week or two
                     to find out who won?

                     If the never-ending election of 2000 (and I have to admit,
                     it is taking a long time) teaches us anything, it’s that we
                     can indeed wait it out for a while without untoward

                     If America returned to the paper ballot system, fraud and
                     error in elections definitely would not end. They would,
                     however, be much easier to detect and correct.
                     Elections would be run by people, not corporations.
                     There are enough vested interests trying to influence
                     every election. Why do we need the extraneous interest
                     of profit-making companies?