Worse Than 2000: Tuesday's Electoral
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Report
Monday 08 November 2004
Everyone remembers Florida's 2000 election
debacle, and all of the new terms it introduced to our political
lexicon: Hanging chads, dimpled chads, pregnant chads, overvotes,
undervotes, Sore Losermans, Jews for Buchanan and so forth. It took
several weeks, battalions of lawyers and a questionable decision from
the U.S. Supreme Court to show the nation and the world how messy
democracy can be. By any standard, what happened in Florida during the
2000 Presidential election was a disaster.
What happened during the Presidential
election of 2004, in Florida, in Ohio, and in a number of other states
as well, was worse.
Some of the problems with this past Tuesday's
election will sound all too familiar. Despite having four years to look
into and deal with the problems that cropped up in Florida in 2000, the
'spoiled vote' chad issue reared its ugly head again. Investigative
journalist Greg Palast, the man almost singularly responsible for
exposing the more egregious examples of illegitimate deletions of voters
from the rolls, described the continued problems in an article
published just before the election, and again in an
article published just after the election.
Four years later, and none of the Florida
problems were fixed. In fact, by all appearances, they spread from
Florida to Ohio, New Mexico, Michigan and elsewhere. Worse, these
problems only scratch the surface of what appears to have happened in
Tuesday's election. The fix that was put in place to solve these
problems - the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 after the Florida
debacle - appears to have gone a long way towards making things worse by
orders of magnitude, for it was the Help America Vote Act which
introduced paperless electronic touch-screen voting machines to millions
of voters across the country.
At first blush, it seems like a good idea.
Forget the chads, the punch cards, the archaic booths like pianos
standing on end with the handles and the curtains. This is the 21st
century, so let's do it with computers. A simple screen presents
straightforward choices, and you touch the spot on the screen to vote
for your candidate. Your vote is recorded by the machine, and then sent
via modem to a central computer which tallies the votes. Simple, right?
there any evidence that these machines went haywire on Tuesday?
Nationally, there were more than 1,100 reports of electronic
voting machine malfunctions. A few examples:
A Diebold voting machine.
- In Broward County, Florida, election workers were
shocked to discover that their shiny new machines were counting
backwards. "Tallies should go up as more votes are counted," according
to this report. "That's simple math. But in some races, the numbers
had gone down. Officials found the software used in Broward can handle
only 32,000 votes per precinct. After that, the system starts counting
- In Franklin County, Ohio, electronic voting machines
gave Bush 3,893 extra votes in one precinct alone. "Franklin County's
unofficial results gave Bush 4,258 votes to Democratic challenger John
Kerry's 260 votes in Precinct 1B," according to this report. "Records
show only 638 voters cast ballots in that precinct. Matthew
Damschroder, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said
Bush received 365 votes there. The other 13 voters who cast ballots
either voted for other candidates or did not vote for president."
- In Craven County, North Carolina, a software error on
the electronic voting machines awarded Bush 11,283 extra votes. "The
Elections Systems and Software equipment," according to this report,
"had downloaded voting information from nine of the county's 26
precincts and as the absentee ballots were added, the precinct totals
were added a second time. An override, like those occurring when one
attempts to save a computer file that already exists, is supposed to
prevent double counting, but did not function correctly."
- In Carteret County, North Carolina, "More than 4,500
votes may be lost in one North Carolina county because officials
believed a computer that stored ballots electronically could hold more
data than it did. Local officials said UniLect Corp., the maker of the
county's electronic voting system, told them that each storage unit
could handle 10,500 votes, but the limit was actually 3,005 votes.
Officials said 3,005 early votes were stored, but 4,530 were lost."
- In LaPorte County, Indiana, a Democratic stronghold,
the electronic voting machines decided that each precinct only had 300
voters. "At about 7 p.m. Tuesday," according to this report, "it was
noticed that the first two or three printouts from individual precinct
reports all listed an identical number of voters. Each precinct was
listed as having 300 registered voters. That means the total number of
voters for the county would be 22,200, although there are actually
more than 79,000 registered voters."
- In Sarpy County, Nebraska, the electronic touch screen
machines got generous. "As many as 10,000 extra votes," according to
this report, "have been tallied and candidates are still waiting for
corrected totals. Johnny Boykin lost his bid to be on the Papillion
City Council. The difference between victory and defeat in the race
was 127 votes. Boykin says, 'When I went in to work the next day and
saw that 3,342 people had shown up to vote in our ward, I thought
something's not right.' He's right. There are not even 3,000 people
registered to vote in his ward. For some reason, some votes were
Stories like this have been popping up in
many of the states that put these touch-screen voting machines to use.
Beyond these reports are the folks who attempted to vote for one
candidate and saw the machine give their vote to the other
candidate. Sometimes, the flawed machines were taken off-line, and
sometimes they were not. As for the reports above, the mistakes
described were caught and corrected. How many mistakes made by these
machines were not caught, were not corrected, and have now become part
of the record?
The flaws within these machines are well
documented. Professors and researchers from Johns Hopkins performed a
detailed analysis of these electronic voting machines in May of 2004. In
their results, the Johns Hopkins researchers stated,
"This voting system is far below even the most minimal security
standards applicable in other contexts. We identify several problems
including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of
cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats, and poor software
development processes. We show that voters, without any insider
privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any
mechanisms within the voting terminal software."
"Furthermore," they continued, "we show that
even the most serious of our outsider attacks could have been discovered
and executed without access to the source code. In the face of such
attacks, the usual worries about insider threats are not the only
concerns; outsiders can do the damage. That said, we demonstrate that
the insider threat is also quite considerable, showing that not only can
an insider, such as a poll worker, modify the votes, but that insiders
can also violate voter privacy and match votes with the voters who cast
them. We conclude that this voting system is unsuitable for use in a
Many of these machines do not provide the
voter with a paper ballot that verifies their vote. So if an error - or
purposefully inserted malicious code - in the untested machine causes
their vote to go for the other guy, they have no way to verify that it
happened. The lack of a paper ballot also means the end of recounts as
we have known them; now, on these new machines, a recount amounts to
pushing a button on the machine and getting a number in return, but
without those paper ballots to do a comparison, there is no way to
verify the validity of that count.
Worst of all is the fact that all the votes
collected by these machines are sent via modem to a central tabulating
computer which counts the votes on Windows software. This means,
essentially, that any gomer with access to the central tabulation
machine who knows how to work an Excel spreadsheet can go into this
central computer and make wholesale changes to election totals without
anyone being the wiser.
Bev Harris, who has been working tirelessly
since the passage of the Help America Vote Act to inform people of
the dangers present in this new process, got a chance to demonstrate how
easy it is to steal an election on that central tabulation computer
while a guest on the CNBC program 'Topic A With Tina Brown.' Ms. Brown
was off that night, and the guest host was none other than Governor
Howard Dean. Thanks to Governor Dean and Ms. Harris, anyone watching
CNBC that night got to see just how easy it is to steal an election
because of these new machines and the flawed processes they use.
"In a voting system," Harris said on the
show, "you have all the different voting machines at all the different
polling places, sometimes, as in a county like mine, there's a thousand
polling places in a single county. All those machines feed into the one
machine so it can add up all the votes. So, of course, if you were going
to do something you shouldn't to a voting machine, would it be more
convenient to do it to each of the 4000 machines, or just come in here
and deal with all of them at once? What surprises people is that the
central tabulator is just a PC, like what you and I use. It's just a
Harris then proceeded to open a laptop
computer that had on it the software used to tabulate the votes by one
of the aforementioned central processors. Journalist Thom Hartman describes what happened next: "So Harris had Dean
close the Diebold GEMS tabulation software, go back to the normal
Windows PC desktop, click on the 'My Computer' icon, choose 'Local Disk
C:,' open the folder titled GEMS, and open the sub-folder 'LocalDB'
which, Harris noted, 'stands for local database, that's where they keep
the votes.' Harris then had Dean double-click on a file in that folder
titled Central Tabulator Votes,' which caused the PC to open the vote
count in a database program like Excel. 'Let's just flip those,' Harris
said, as Dean cut and pasted the numbers from one cell into the other.
Harris sat up a bit straighter, smiled, and said, 'We just edited an
election, and it took us 90 seconds.'"
Any system that makes it this easy to steal
or corrupt an election has no business being anywhere near the voters on
The counter-argument to this states that
people with nefarious intent, people with a partisan stake in the
outcome of an election, would have to have access to the central
tabulation computers in order to do harm to the process. Keep the
partisans away from the process, and everything will work out fine.
Surely no partisan political types were near these machines on Tuesday
night when the votes were counted, right?
One of the main manufacturers of these
electronic touch-screen voting machines is Diebold, Inc. More than 35
counties in Ohio alone used the Diebold machines on Tuesday, and
millions of voters across the country did the same. According to the
Center for Responsive Politics, Diebold gave $100,000 to the Republican
National Committee in 2000, along with additional contributions between
2001 and 2002 which totaled $95,000. Of the four companies competing for
the contracts to manufacture these voting machines, only Diebold
contributed large sums to any political party. The CEO of Diebold is a
man named Walden O'Dell. O'Dell was very much on board with the Bush
campaign, having said publicly in 2003 that he is "committed to helping
Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."
So much for keeping the partisans at arm's
Is there any evidence that vote totals were
deliberately tampered with by people who had a stake in the outcome?
Nothing specific has been documented to date. Jeff Fisher, the
Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from
Florida's 16th District, claims to have evidence that the Florida
election was hacked, and says further that he knows who hacked it and
how it was done. Such evidence is not yet forthcoming.
There are, however, some disturbing and
compelling trends that indicate things are not as they should be. This
chart displays a breakdown of counties in Florida. It lists the
voters in each county by party affiliation, and compares expected vote
totals to the reported results. It also separates the results into two
sections, one for 'touch-screen' counties and the other for optical scan
Over and over in these counties, the results,
based upon party registration, did not come close to matching
expectations. It can be argued, and has been argued, that such results
indicate nothing more or less than a President getting cross-over
voters, as well as late-breaking undecided voters, to come over to his
side. These are Southern Democrats, and the numbers from previous
elections show that many have often voted Republican. Yet the news wires
have been inundated for well over a year with stories about how
stridently united Democratic voters were behind the idea of removing
Bush from office. It is worth wondering why that unity did not permeate
these Democratic voting districts. If that unity was there, it is worth
asking why the election results in these counties do not reflect this.
Most disturbing of all is the reality that
these questionable Diebold voting machines are not isolated to Florida.
This list documents, as of March 2003, all of the
counties in all of the 37 states where Diebold machines were used to
count votes. The document is 28 pages long. That is a lot of counties,
and a lot of votes, left in the hands of machines that have a
questionable track record, that send their vote totals to central
computers which make it far too easy to change election results, that
were manufactured by a company with a personal, financial, and publicly
stated stake in George W. Bush holding on to the White House.
poster named 'TruthIsAll' on the DemocraticUnderground.com forums laid
out the questionable results of Tuesday's election in succinct fashion:
"To believe that Bush won the election, you must also believe: That the
exit polls were wrong; that Zogby's 5pm election day calls for Kerry
winning Ohio and Florida were wrong (he was exactly right in his 2000
final poll); that Harris' last-minute polling for Kerry was wrong (he
was exactly right in his 2000 final poll); that incumbent rule #1 -
undecideds break for the challenger - was wrong; That the 50% rule - an
incumbent doesn't do better than his final polling - was wrong; That the
approval rating rule - an incumbent with less than 50% approval will
most likely lose the election - was wrong; that it was just a
coincidence that the exit polls were correct where there was a paper
trail and incorrect (+5% for Bush) where there was no paper trail; that
the surge in new young voters had no positive effect for Kerry; that
Kerry did worse than Gore against an opponent who lost the support of
scores of Republican newspapers who were for Bush in 2000; that voting
machines made by Republicans with no paper trail and with no software
publication, which have been proven by thousands of computer scientists
to be vulnerable in scores of ways, were not tampered with in this
This map indicates where different voting devices
were used nationally. The areas where electronic voting
machines were used is marked in blue.
In short, we have old-style vote spoilage in
minority communities. We have electronic voting machines losing votes
and adding votes all across the country. We have electronic voting
machines whose efficiency and safety have not been tested. We have
electronic voting machines that offer no paper trail to ensure a fair
outcome. We have central tabulators for these machines running on
Windows software, compiling results that can be demonstrably tampered
with. We have the makers of these machines publicly professing their
preference for George W. Bush. We have voter trends that stray from the
expected results. We have these machines counting millions of votes all
across the country.
Perhaps this can all be dismissed. Perhaps
rants like the one posted by 'TruthIsAll' are nothing more than sour
grapes from the side that lost. Perhaps all of the glitches, wrecked
votes, unprecedented voting trends and partisan voting-machine
connections can be explained away. If so, this reporter would very much
like to see those explanations. At a bare minimum, the fact that these
questions exist at all represents a grievous undermining of the basic
confidence in the process required to make this democracy work.
Democracy should not ever require leaps of faith, and we have put the
fate of our nation into the hands of machines that require such a leap.
It is unacceptable across the board, and calls into serious question not
only the election we just had, but any future election involving these
Representatives John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler
and Robert Wexler, all members of the House Judiciary Committee, posted
a letter on November 5th to David Walker, Comptroller General of the
United States. In the letter, they asked for an investigation into the
efficacy of these electronic voting machines. The letter reads as
November 5, 2004
The Honorable David M. Walker
Comptroller General of the United
U.S. General Accountability Office
441 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20548
Dear Mr. Walker:
We write with an urgent request that the Government Accountability
Office immediately undertake an investigation of the efficacy of
voting machines and new technologies used in the 2004 election, how
election officials responded to difficulties they encountered and what
we can do in the future to improve our election systems and
In particular, we are extremely troubled by the following reports,
which we would also request that you review and evaluate for us:
In Columbus, Ohio, an electronic voting system gave President Bush
nearly 4,000 extra votes. ("Machine Error Gives Bush Extra Ohio
Votes," Associated Press, November 5)
An electronic tally of a South Florida gambling ballot initiative
failed to record thousands of votes. "South Florida OKs Slot Machines
In one North Carolina county, more than 4,500 votes were lost
because officials mistakenly believed a computer that stored ballots
could hold more data that it did. "Machine Error Gives Bush Extra Ohio
In San Francisco, a glitch occurred with voting machines software
that resulted in some votes being left uncounted. (Id.)
In Florida, there was a substantial drop off in Democratic votes in
proportion to voter registration in counties utilizing optical scan
machines that was apparently not present in counties using other
The House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff has received
numerous reports from Youngstown, Ohio that voters who attempted to
cast a vote for John Kerry on electronic voting machines saw that
their votes were instead recorded as votes for George W. Bush. In
South Florida, Congressman Wexler's staff received numerous reports
from voters in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties that they
attempted to select John Kerry but George Bush appeared on the screen.
CNN has reported that a dozen voters in six states, particularly
Democrats in Florida, reported similar problems. This was among over
one thousand such problems reported. ("Touchscreen Voting Problems
Reported," Associated Press, November 5)
Excessively long lines were a frequent problem throughout the
nation in Democratic precincts, particularly in Florida and Ohio. In
one Ohio voting precinct serving students from Kenyon College, some
voters were required to wait more than eight hours to vote. ("All Eyes
on Ohio," Dan Lothian, CNN, November 3)
We are literally receiving additional reports every minute and will
transmit additional information as it comes available. The essence of
democracy is the confidence of the electorate in the accuracy of
voting methods and the fairness of voting procedures. In 2000, that
confidence suffered terribly, and we fear that such a blow to our
democracy may have occurred in 2004.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this inquiry.
John Conyers, Jr., Jerrold Nadler, Robert Wexler
Ranking Member, Ranking Member, Member of Congress
Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution
cc: Hon. F. James Sensenbrenner, Chairman
"The essence of democracy," wrote the
Congressmen, "is the confidence of the electorate in the accuracy of
voting methods and the fairness of voting procedures. In 2000, that
confidence suffered terribly, and we fear that such a blow to our
democracy may have occurred in 2004." Those fears appear to be valid.
John Kerry and John Edwards promised on
Tuesday night that every vote would count, and that every vote would be
counted. By Wednesday morning, Kerry had conceded the race to Bush,
eliciting outraged howls from activists who were watching the reports of
voting irregularities come piling in. Kerry had said that 10,000 lawyers
were ready to fight any wrongdoing in this election. One hopes that he
still has those lawyers on retainer.
According to black-letter election law, Bush
does not officially get a second term until the electors from the
Electoral College go to Washington D.C on December 12th. Perhaps Kerry's
10,000 lawyers, along with a real investigation per the request of
Conyers, Nadler and Wexler, could give those electors something to think
about in the interim.
In the meantime, soon-to-be-unemployed DNC
chairman Terry McAuliffe sent out an email on Saturday night titled
'Help determine the Democratic Party's next steps.' In the email,
McAuliffe states, "If you were involved in these grassroots activities,
we want to hear from you about your experience. What did you do? Did you
feel the action you took was effective? Was it a good experience for
you? How would you make it better? Tell us your thoughts." He provided
form where such thoughts can be sent.
Use the form. Give Terry your thoughts on the
matter. Ask him if those 10,000 lawyers are still available. It seems
the validity of Tuesday's election remains a wide-open question.
William Rivers Pitt is a New
York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know'
and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'
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