Can Democracy in America Survive Electronic Voting?

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Electronic voting may place the integrity of elections in the unchallenged, unscrutinized control of a few large–and pro-Republican — corporations while software concerns raise questions about the reliability and security of electronic voting. [includes transcript]

Electronic voting may place the integrity of elections in the unchallenged, unscrutinized control of a few large–and pro-Republican–corporations.

Voting machines are sold in much the same way as other government contracts: through intensive lobbying, wining and dining and America’s top three computer voting machine manufacturers–Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software (ES&S) are all big Republican donors, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into party coffers in the past few years.

In the most stark case, Diebold’s chief executive Walden O’Dell wrote in a recent political fund-raising letter to Ohio Republicans that he was “committed to helping Ohio to deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” Diebold is one of the companies vying to sell electronic voting machines in Ohio.

But the concerns over electronic voting machines run from the political to the technical.

Already, malfunctioning software has caused confusion or possibly faulty vote tallies in races across the country. And a recent study out from Johns Hopkins researchers says that Diebold machines are vulnerable to hackers, multiple votes and vote-switching. There isn’t even a paper trail to record votes.

To counter this, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt introduced a bill in the House of Representatives called the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. The measure would require all voting machines to produce an actual paper record by 2004 that voters can view to check the accuracy of their votes. The paper records can also be used by election officials to verify votes in the event of a computer malfunction, hacking, or other irregularity.

  • * Rep. Rush Holt*, Democratic Congressman from New Jersey. He is the author of the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act which would require voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail.
  • Andrew Gumbel, Los Angeles based reporter the London Independent. He recently published a 5,000 word expose on electronic voting titled All the President’s Votes

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone right now by Congressman Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey. Welcome to Democracy Now!

RUSH HOLT: Good to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the bill that you just introduced?


I think that the key word is “confidence.” The goal is to make sure that voters have confidence in — in the process of democracy. And that is not the case now. There is a great deal of anxiety around the country.

Let me put it this way, to make the point about the unverifiability of the voting machines. Suppose it is election day. You go to the polling booth to cast your ballot, brand new touch-screen electronic machine. It looks easy to use. It is kind of like your A.T.M. at the bank. It seems more modern than the old lever machines and you don’t have to worry about hanging chads or dimpled chads.

So, it seems — it seems great — and you make your choice and touch the button to cast your vote and you leave the polling place with a sense of satisfaction that a voter should feel leaving the voting place and then you begin to wonder, what happened to my vote? How can I know that my vote was recorded for candidate A, as I intended?

You can’t. And you won’t. And no one can. And it can’t be checked.

At the end of the day, of course, the computer will spit out an electronic count and say there were 43 votes for candidate A and 72 votes for candidate B and that will be sent to the county clerk. And if there is a recall, well, then the computer will print out exactly that same thing.

But if there had been erroneous software, either accidentally or maliciously, if it had been hacked or if it just crashed, there is no way to check it. A recount is meaningless and the voter, I think, quickly loses confidence in the system.

So, I have legislation that would, I think, address this glaring problem and that is simply that there be a paper audit trail. And when the voter votes, the voter gets to see a printed copy, probably behind a glass plate on the machine saying here’s your vote and the voter can say, yep, that’s my vote. And then that recorded — that paper record is saved and is the vote of records, should there needs to be a check, you have to check the software, if you have to check the performance of the system, you’ve got a hard copy vote that the voter herself or himself has inspected and verified.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response of Republicans, Congressman Holt?

RUSH HOLT: Well, the response in general around the country has startled me.

It surprises me how strongly people care about — how much they care about it. I’m getting E-Mails from every state in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s been the response of Republicans in Congress?


I have about 60 co-sponsors on the bill, not a single Republican, and I’ve pleaded with the Republicans and said, look, this is not a partisan issue. This is not payback for Florida. This is not an attempt to get at the chairman of the — of the manufacturer of these voting machines. This is just to preserve the sanctity of the central act in our democracy.

And the silence scares me.

You know, a number of my colleagues, Republican colleagues, have come up to me expressing some interest in this, some concern about the voting. I’ve explained my bill to them. They said that sounds good, let me go back and talk to my staff and presumably talk to the leadership.

And I never hear from them again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone, Congressman Holt, by Andrew Gumbel.

He is a reporter based in Los Angeles for the “London Independent” and has just written a 5,000-word exposeí on the electronic voting machines called “All the President’s Votes: A quiet revolution is taking place in U.S. politics. By the time it is over, the integrity of elections will be in the control of a few large pro-Republican corporations.”

Andrew Gumbel, you give example after example beginning with Georgia and then I’d like to get Congressman Holt’s response. Can you talk about what happened there last November?

ANDREW GUMBEL: First of all, good morning, Amy. Good to be on your show.

I think one thing I want to say from the outset, it is very very important when looking at this kind of issue to distinguish what looks odd from jumping to big conclusions about what that oddity might be due to.

And I’m sure Congressman Holt and everybody else involved in this issue, who’s serious about making sure that what is really at stake is integrity of voting, wants to be absolutely clear that, you know, these are complex issues and we can’t jump to conclusions.

Some people out there want to be able to scream from the roof tops, you know, there’s this stolen election, this other stolen election, including people whoíve read my piece.

I want to make it very very clear that what I looked at was anomaly after anomaly after anomaly. Some can be explained, some can’t be explained. Some we’re prevented from having an explanation because of the nature of the machines — which is one of the things that Congressman Holt just referred to.

So, where I started was in Georgia and the reason for starting with Georgia is because it was the first state that went totally over to touch-screen voting machines. This was a source of great pride. They put a lot of money into it. And they were hoping to use last November’s election as a show case for the new technology.

And what happened is a number of things, some of which became apparent before election day, some of them on election day, some of them in the months since.

Fundamentally what we know is that the software that was being prepared and had been subject to evaluation by independent testing labs suffered some kind of malfunction in the summer and had to be patched at very high speed at the last moment.

First of all, what we don’t know for sure is whether the version of the software that was used on election day was actually certified, as is required by both state and federal law, and there are a number of Georgia citizens who have requested confirmation from the Secretary of State’s office and the Georgia technology authority that this certification didnít take place.

They’ve been unable to produce any evidence that it was certified and, in fact, have said in the case of the Secretary of State’s office, we don’t have that documentation here. That’s worry number one.

AMY GOODMAN: I should just say, and you point this out right at the beginning in your piece, you write that on the eve of the vote, opinion polls showed Roy Barnes, the incumbent Democratic Governor, leading between 9 and 11 points. In a somewhat closer keenly watched Senate race, polls indicated Max Cleland, the popular Democrat up for re-election, was up 2 to 5 points against Saxby Chambliss.

Those figures are what political experts would have expected in a state of 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 Purdue, 46% to 51%. A swing as much as 16% from the last opinion polls and Cleland lost to Chambliss 46%-53. A last-minute swing of 9 to 12 points, making what you’re saying particularly significant.

ANDREW GUMBEL: That’s right. When the results came in, it was something of — I mean, the Cleland-Chambliss race, we knew it was close, and followed very closely on a national level.

Big swings do occur in elections sometimes. But the fact was that, you know, with the background of the machinery and the concerns of the way that it was done and various malfunctions on election day, including the mysterious disappearance of 67 voting cards in Fulton County, which is downtown Atlanta —

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “voting cards,” normally people think you’re missing 67 ballots. It is not an enormous number, though it matters.

ANDREW GUMBEL: Forgive me, I’m not a technical expert on these things, but —

AMY GOODMAN: Memory cards?

ANDREW GUMBEL: These are the memory cards that are inside the individual touch screen voting machines.

AMY GOODMAN: And they contain how many votes?

ANDREW GUMBEL: The total number, I think, that was in question, it was well over 3,000 votes, I think.

And I’m not sure if that was the number that remained unaccounted for after they found some of these cards or if that was the total number in question at the beginning. I’m sorry, I just don’t know that off the top of my head.

RUSH HOLT: Amy, if I may jump in here —

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Congressman Holt.

RUSH HOLT: Obviously Mr. Gumbel is suggesting, or there are implications of chicanery or even vote theft here.

I would say without even having to go that far, without even buying into — conspiracy theories, not to discount them, but I’m saying that even if you don’t want to go that far, there are reasons to put a voter-verified paper trail backup in the system.

There’s floating around on the internet now some memos that are supposedly internal memos from one of the manufacturing companies.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, Diebold.

RUSH HOLT: They suggest that the software engineers were entirely too cavalier with the idea of voting.

In other words, they were making last-minute changes to the software. Of course, computer scientists have looked at the software for some of these machines and said that they’re riddled with errors and they have huge security gaps. So, they could be hacked if someone wanted to do that.

So, I mean, the weaknesses are apparent and even if there are weaknesses that haven’t been exploited, even if there haven’t been rigged elections — and I’m not saying there have or haven’t — But even if there haven’t, the possibility is there, the public confidence is undermined, and we’ve got to take steps to restore that confidence.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess I —- The question is, if just getting that receipt that you have personally for your vote -—

RUSH HOLT: Let me just say, I don’t use the word “receipt”, because it is not something the voter carries away with her or with him. Obviously — That would be rife with possibilities for vote sales.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you see it.

RUSH HOLT: But the record stays there with the machine and that is the secure record, the audit trail, of the vote and each voter gets to see that record. Each voter — or if the voter is visually impaired, you know, it gets to verify that record. And that record is kept so that —- Well -—

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is — I guess the question is, can even that record be manipulated in the machine?

But we have to break for 60 seconds and we’ll be back with Congressman Russ Holt and Andrew Gumbel of “The London Independent” and speaking with a representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that is now defending a website against the electronic voting machine company Diebold that wants any website that connects to some of its computer programming, around voting machines, to take those off their websites…

As we continue our conversation on electronic voting machines, joined by Congressman Rush Holt, introducing legislation to require all voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail.

Also on the line with us, Andrew Gumbel of “The London Independent” has a major piece called “All the President’s Votes” and now one that has just come out in the — In a Los Angeles paper. And we’re going to talk about that in a minute.

But Andrew Gumbel, the issue of the paper trail that Congressman Holt is talking about, is that enough verification?

ANDREW GUMBEL: Well, everybody I spoke to certainly thinks it would help. As the Congressman said, it means that there if there is any question about the election, you have something else to go back to, which is not stored inside a machine that may or may not be subject to software bugs or manipulation of one kind or another.

There is actually quite an interesting example to look at in Brazil where a subsidiary of Diebold provided touch-screen voting machines which were used in the presidential election that took place just about this time last year.

In the run-up to that election, there was actually a scandal in the Senate involving touch-screen voting machines where it was discovered that Senators who were not even present were having votes counted on their behalf by these machines, as a result of which there was a call for verified paper trail.

One was introduced and interestingly, Diebold now claims that the Brazilian presidential election is a wonderful showcase for its technology. And certainly as far as we know, the elections in Brazil have not been subject to any great questioning about the result that brought Lula to power.

RUSH HOLT: And that makes the point that this fix can be made easily.

Many of these companies that make these voting machines also make A.T.M. bank machines. So, you know, adding a printer to this is a minor fix. All the companies are working on this now. There are models available on the market now. So it could be fixed.

I also want to make the point, I’m not an anti-technology Luddite. I’m a physicist and something of a techie myself.

I just think that the major flaw in the system can be fixed and it may be possible to use electronic machines, then, in polling places. They do have advantages of accessibility for people with physical disabilities, for example. They’re more efficient and easier to use by — for many voters, anyway.

So, it would be nice if we could remove this glaring flaw from them so that the local states and jurisdictions could decide whether those were the machines — You know, that was the voting technique they wanted to use.

AMY GOODMAN: What is going to happen with the legislation?

RUSH HOLT: Well, as long as the Republican leadership doesn’t support it, it is not going to get to a vote on the floor. It is that simple. You know, it’s —- You know, I’ve been in Congress five years now and I’m still not quite used to living in the minority, but it’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have electronic voting machines in your district?

RUSH HOLT: I represent five counties and in two counties there are. In others there are lever machines. Although one county has just spent millions of dollars to buy these new electronic machines without the safeguards that I’m asking for.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Gumbel, you have a new piece out today in the “L.A. City Beat,” asking how safe is your vote? Computerized voting has come to California and will help elect the next president, but it is now possible for one programmer to hijack entire contests.

Tell us who Jerry Kunzman is.

ANDREW GUMBEL: May I say one other thing about the voting machines and printing out voting verified records — which is that many, if not all of the machines in circulation, actually have printers attached.

And it would be remarkably simple, from everything I’ve heard from the people who understand the way these machines work, to set up a voter-verified paper trail and there was a rather ñ an almost farcical exchange between a number of citizens who attended a meeting in Georgia in a representative Secretary of State’s office in which they were saying why can’t we do this?

And the representative was saying, well, it will cost a lot of money to buy the paper to do it. And somebody did a calculation that it would cost something unbelievably small, well under $100 to provide paper for the entire state for this thing.

And then the representative said, well, the printing costs would be huge for the ink and everything else and they said, well, they’re thermal printers. They don’t need ink.

This is the kind of exchange that has been going on from what I gather between people who one would think would have the integrity of elections closest to heart — which is the people in charge of them — and the citizens, who are getting more and more upset at the way in which those electoral representatives seem to be defending the voting machines, rather than the electoral process itself.

But anyways, come to California, this is a very interesting test case, the recall election — because the outcome is not in doubt. It hasn’t been contested. Gray Davis was recalled.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected the new governor, which gives a sort of golden opportunity to take out all of those kind of fraught questions that did exist in Georgia and may have existed elsewhere, questions as to whether the system overall produced the right results.

And one can look purely at how the machines functioned, how the various safeguards put into place by the electoral officials functioned. And there are various things that, of course, of concern.

Jerry Kunzman, who you asked about, was a lower-order candidate, a businessman and a Republican from Alameda County and he and two other lower-order candidates, to their very great surprise ñ came in fifth and sixth in Tulary County, a small rural farming community in the Central Valley.

None of them had ever set foot there.

One of them, in fact, who is an entertainment lawyer from L.A. had put on his website that his slogan for the election was “Don’t vote for me” because he was ideologically opposed to the recall from the get-go and this all seemed very puzzling, and I called his office and he said I’d sure like to know what happened. So I was offered a free radio spot. Maybe that made a difference.

But he got just a staggering percentage of his overall votes in three counties, Tulary, Fresno to the north and then Humbolt County further up the west coast.

Another big cause for concern was the number of under-votes that were registered, which is to say people came to the polls and deliberately did not cast a vote on the question of whether or not to recall Gray Davis, which was question number one and was the most important question on the ballot.

There was a big discrepancy between the overall percentage of people who apparently did not answer that question, which came out statewide to be 4.6%, and the percentage of people who said in exit polls we deliberately did not answer that question.

That percentage was about 2.5%. There is a 2% discrepancy right there.

And looking at the different machines, and this is where it gets interesting, the vote of ethic punch card machine, which is about to be phased out in L.A. county and Sacramento and elsewhere, did indeed perform very badly. But there was one punch card system that actually performed among the very, very best.

On the optical scan machines, there was a huge variety from very very good performance on the under-vote question to very very bad.

The touch-screen machines, as one would hope and expect, because this is one of the big things that they are supposed to correct, did extremely well on the whole on the under-vote question, which doesn’t, of course, take away from the question of being sure that the votes were recorded correctly. But at least it didn’t apparently incorrectly record under-votes on that crucial question whether to recall the governor. That is another discrepancy.

Looking around the state, there is the sort of Georgia of California, as it were, the pioneer in touch-screen voting is Riverside County, just east of Los Angeles. And there was a very interesting report put out by a young man who is a computer programmer, who was invited by the state to attend a pre-electoral test of the touch-screen voting machine, called a logic and accuracy test and he catalogued a whole number of very odd things that happened, the improper conduct of the test as far as he could see.

People — There were six observers in all and all but he left before the test was even finished. There were crucial parts of the test that nobody witnessed. The people who left early signed pieces of paper saying they had witnessed the complete test and they were satisfied with the way it was conducted.

There was just this pattern of lackadaisical oversight, I would say, at the very least, which was also evidenced in Georgia. It has been evidenced in Florida where they had huge problems with their voting machines.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the three major companies that are voting machine manufacturers, Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software, known as ES&S, and point out that the head of ES&S, until he became Republican Senator from Nebraska, was Chuck Hagel.


There’s a whole series of — You know, I think just to look at it in a very dispassionate way and itís important to do that because one musn’t jump to conclusions, as the Congressman also pointed out, we don’t have to go there necessarily even, to be concerned.

There are a number of just very disturbing conflicts of interest, at least from where I’m sitting. First of all, the idea that, as you point out, that someone who runs an election machine company could then run for electoral office and have 80% of the votes counted by the company that he just headed, that strikes me as being a conflict of interest at the very least.

Then the issue of having people who are producing machinery for elections, making political contributions of any kind. Never mind that it is to one party rather than to the other.

That-–that also strikes me as being deeply disturbing.

These machines should be made under conditions of strict — non-partisanship, I would have thought. And, you know, these issues exist throughout the system.

As I pointed out in my article, one would think that the process of running elections should be special in a democracy, but the way the system works is like anything else, you know, in this political system, that it’s subject to lobbying and campaign contributions and the whole, you know, the whole revolving door system that we’re all too familiar with.

AMY GOODMAN: You also point out the Chief Executive of American Information Systems, Chuck Hagel, went on to run for office, became the first Republican in 24 years to be elected to the Senate from Nebraska, cheered on by the ìOmaha World Heraldî newspaper, which also happens to be a big investor in ES&S.

ANDREW GUMBEL: Right. Right there, you know, I didn’t look in great detail as to what happened in Nebraska or all the various different conflicts of interest.

But, you know, what you’ve just read out from my pieces is enough to get concerned and to ask serious questions about conflict of interest.

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