The Black Box Election

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

As the Republicans at Madison Square Garden hunkered down with marshmallows at the ready, hopeful of parlaying any violence amid the protests outside into a modern Reichstag fire (rallying cry: The Democrats did this!), the president at last had cause to rejoice. For days preceding the convention, the airwaves crackled with the unrelenting roar of tedious, trivial arguments about Vietnam and the things Bush's opponent had or hadn't done there. The grand irony in this, which was that Bush spent his own period of military service drinking and whoring around bars in Alabama, was rarely mentioned. The swift-boat slurs helped win Bush a bounce in the latest L.A. Times poll, which put him back in the lead at 49-46.

But troubling omens continued to loom. Despite his own best non-efforts, Lt. John Kerry--the first Vietnam-era soldier to go missing in action 35 years after the fact?--had yet to demonstrate that he could put to sleep all of the people all of the time. To the contrary, Kerry's master plan of standing around in nice clothes while everyone watched Bush continued to pay incremental dividends. Last week a Zogby/Wall Street Journal summary of battleground state polls gave Kerry the edge in 14 of 16. A previous Zogby poll had given Kerry a 50-43 lead nationally. There may be good reason to doubt the polls more than usual this year--no one really knows what a "likely voter" looks like in this furious season--but so far the Democrats have survived and even prospered by letting Bush campaign against Bush.

This could change dramatically. Another stateside terror attack obviously tops the list of Bush-friendly contingencies. Failing that, what else might the regime responsible for Florida 2000 and the invasion of Iraq have up its sleeve? The question has become a matter of morbid urgency outside the U.S. and on the internet, spawning a number of speculative October Surprise scenarios for manipulating the election. Usually the dialogue revolves around not whether Bush II will try to cheat, but how. Some untold portion of the American public seems to share the view. Ten percent? Thirty? More? We will never know, since pollsters, like trial lawyers, always avoid questions whose answers might prove embarrassing or unforeseen.

Corey Anderson

Still, there are clues. As I write this, a Google search of the string Bush "October Surprise" 2004 yields around 22,000 results. One website, octobersurprise.net, has posted a running ballot on the most popular theories. In ascending order, they include a troop pullout from Iraq, 4.3 percent; WMD "found" in Iraq, 5.9 percent; a new military front in Israel, Iran, or North Korea, 8.5 percent; election suspended by terror alert, 15.6 percent; bin Laden captured or killed, 35.4 percent.

Of all the plotlines suggested in the survey, the best bet is one the Bush campaign has already used to great effect once before: election fraud. A meager 11 percent of voters at the October Surprise site tabbed it most likely, though it is the least complicated of them all, and relatively free of risk if done right. For their collective ignorance, voters there and elsewhere can mainly thank the Democrats and the press. It was the party of the people, remember, that charitably buried the real story of what happened in Florida four years ago, after Al Gore took a hard look at the situation and opted to go off in the woods, grow a beard, and find himself.

Consequently everyone knows that the matter was settled by the political intervention of the Supreme Court (even if few understood why that was supposed to be scandalous), and almost no one knows about the prior fraud that helped make the election so close in the first place. The journalist Greg Palast has written extensively about the centerpiece of the Florida 2000 effort, which involved hiring a private firm to scrub state voter rolls of ex-felons who were ineligible to vote--a few thousand of whom, it was later revealed, were not ex-felons and had been disqualified illegally. Most of these were black, and registered Democrats.

Would the Bush crew attempt such a thing again in 2004? They already have, to little notice outside the state of Florida. Earlier this summer, a consortium of media companies sued for release of the latest version of the state's felon list. Brother Jeb spent $125,000 in legal fees fighting the
request but was eventually compelled to turn it over. Once again, errors abounded and the numbers seemed to reek of tampering. Among some 47,000-plus entries, there were 22,084 African Americans on the list--and 61 Hispanics. Hispanics comprise 20 percent of Florida's population; they also vote Republican in overwhelming numbers. Delving into the list, the Miami Herald showed that over 2,000 of the people named did not belong there. The New York Times reported that thousands of Hispanics whose names should have been listed were not. The state was forced to scuttle the list, but it was business as usual. Optimists will claim that Florida is a special case--part of the Deep South and therefore devoutly corrupt in its elections as a matter of regional pride.

But this is no longer true, if it ever was. The whole business of collecting and counting votes is in the midst of a messy and ill-advised technological transformation that has opened gaping windows for fraud as well as error. This year 29 percent or so of the ballots cast for president will be recorded on touch-screen ballot boxes equipped with Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) technology. Typically these devices create no paper backup of the voting transaction, so there is no potential for recounts in the usual sense. When the voting is done, we get--whatever the machines give 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.

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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