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,"
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 Voter.com) 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
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
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
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?