From New Zeland Herald
US voting system vulnerable to fraud
Part 1 of a 4-part investigation by ANDREW GUMBEL of the Independent
INVESTIGATION – 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.
Political analysts credited the upset, part of a pattern of Republican successes around the country, to a huge personal campaign push by President Bush in the final days of the race.
They also said that Roy Barnes had lost because of a surge of “angry white men” punishing him for eradicating all but a vestige of the old confederate symbol from the state’s flag.
But something about these explanations did not make sense, and they have made even less sense over time.
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When the Georgia secretary of state’s office published its demographic breakdown of the election earlier this year, it turned out there was no surge of angry white men; in fact, the only subgroup showing even a modest increase in turnout was black women.
Their embrace of the confederate cause was about as likely as the alleged support for right-wing demagogue Pat Buchanan by retired liberal Jews – using the notorious “butterfly ballot” – in the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach County, Florida.
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.
Georgia has an open primary system – meaning anyone can vote for either major party, irrespective of their own affiliation – so that consistency was to be expected.
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 ($91 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.
Had Diebold Inc, the manufacturer, been asked to review the votes, all it could have done was programme the computers to spit out the same data as before, flawed or not.
Astonishingly, these are the terms under which America’s top three computer voting machine manufacturers — Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software (ES&S) — have sold their products to election officials around the country.
Far from questioning the need for rigid trade secrecy and the absence of a paper record, secretaries of state and their technical advisers — anxious to banish memories of the “hanging chad” fiasco and other associated disasters in the 2000 presidential recount in Florida — have, for the most part, welcomed the touchscreen voting machines as a technological miracle solution.
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.
Again, this was widely attributed to the campaigning efforts of President Bush and the demoralisation of a Democratic Party too timid to speak out against the looming war in Iraq.
Strangely, however, the pollsters made no comparable howlers in lower-key races whose outcome was not seriously contested. Another anomaly, perhaps.
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?
Alarmed and suspicious, an ad hoc group of Georgia citizens began to look into the background of last November’s election to see whether there was any chance the results might have been deliberately or accidentally manipulated.
Their research proved unexpectedly, and disturbingly, fruitful.
First, they wanted to know if the software had undergone adequate oversight.
Under state and federal law, all voting machinery and component parts must be certified before use in an election.
So an Atlanta graphic designer named Denis Wright wrote to the secretary of state’s office for a copy of the certification letter.
Clifford Tatum, assistant director of legal affairs for the election division, wrote back: “We have determined that no records exist in the Secretary of State’s office regarding a certification letter from the lab certifying the version of software used on Election Day.”
Mr Tatum said it was possible the relevant documents were with Gary Powell, an official at the Georgia Technology Authority, so campaigners wrote to him as well.
Mr Powell responded he was “not sure what you mean by the words ‘please provide written certification documents'”.
“If the machines were not certified, then right there the election was illegal,” Mr Wright said.
The secretary of state’s office has yet to demonstrate anything to the contrary.