The Black Box Election

That chill in the air means October surprise season is upon us

How secure from tampering are they? According to e-voting's unbelievers, most notably the investigative reporter Bev Harris, a chimp could probably not rig the vote on one, but an enterprising 15-year-old should have no trouble. It's difficult to be very exact about the machines' flaws, however, since all of the operating systems are privately owned and off-limits to public scrutiny. We do know, however, that the two largest vendors of DRE voting machines are tied at the hip to the Republican Party. The bigger of the two, Election Systems & Software of Omaha, has longstanding ties to Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who once served as its chairman and has $1 million worth of stock in one of the holding companies that co-owns ES&S. The number-two firm, Diebold, is headed by one Walden "Wally" O'Dell, a Bush campaign money-collector who proclaimed in a 2003 fundraising letter, "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

That's nice, Wally, but how committed? Last year someone posted the code from one of O'Dell's black boxes on the internet, where it was picked up and examined by a group of Johns Hopkins researchers. Their report found the software full of "security-relevant flaws... [that] might be exploitable either by unscrupulous voters or by malicious insiders." They wrote that it would not be difficult to program "homebrew" smart cards that would allow users to vote repeatedly on these terminals, or for a poll worker to preset a machine's final results before any balloting took place. Anyone with access to a machine, they noted, could erase the trail of his or her actions from its internal Event Log. Such problems have not been confined to Diebold. Earlier this year, Ohio's secretary of state announced that a study he commissioned had found 57 security flaws in machines from three other manufacturers besides Diebold, including market leader ES&S.

Corey Anderson

Come November--well, put it this way: When the most brazen and corrupt president in living memory meets the most corruptible electoral apparatus of the post-Civil Rights Act age, it's hard to like the odds. The question isn't whether there will be errors and fraud, but how extensive and how consequential. This time "Florida" could be lurking anywhere, or everywhere.

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