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California's Bowen, the press and the election integrity S.O.S.

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California’s Bowen, the press and the election integrity S.O.S.
By Joan Brunwasser, OpEdNews July 7, 2007

Normal people use weekends to relax and socialize, recharging their much-overworked batteries. My enforced leisure started last Thursday with an unanticipated case of the flu. This was aggravated by intermittent, often simultaneous, lapses in telephone and internet service. As a result, I’ve been in a combination news vacuum/time warp – precisely at the moment when so much has been going on. I feel like a debilitated Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up the incline on wobbly legs, one arm tied behind my back, stopping frequently for bathroom breaks.

With the almost simultaneous release of three important studies on computerized election systems in the last 10 days or so (CA Secretary of State Bowen’s “top-to-bottom” review, and the UConn and Florida State University reports), is this roiling election morass finally going to reach the tipping point and stimulate massive media interest? For all I know, it’s now front page on every newspaper across the country and being heralded on talk shows and news programs. But based on past history, I tend to doubt it. After too many years of being ridiculed and marginalized, election critics are certainly now finding a more receptive collective ear. But, with the 2008 elections not that far off and presidential primaries just months away, we’re cutting this one pretty close.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, after a virtual drought. Let’s recap what we’ve got. Over the last several weeks, PBS aired a NOW special on voter caging – the despicable practice of targeting minority voters, including those serving in Iraq – for illegal disenfranchisement. http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/330/index.html The New York Times had a page one story on the revolving door between election officials and voting machine vendors. The Times also had an unsigned editorial pushing the passage of HR 811 (the Holt “election reform” bill), and a satire on vote selling, which, sadly, missed the whole point.

In addition, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation’s Science Friday had a segment on the CA review of the election systems in place there. This was actually quite good, although too brief, sharing the program with several other topics including the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse. The host interviewed Professor Matt Bishop of UC Davis, who coordinated the Red Team attacks that infiltrated the various election machinery now in use in California. http://www.hackingdemocracy.com/ He points out that the review is noteworthy because from now on, no one can claim to make a decision about the voting machines out of ignorance. While he was confident that there were solutions for some of the vulnerabilities – which were alarmingly easy to discover – he was equally confident that for many, there were no obvious solutions. Everyone involved in the review agreed that they would not want to switch places with SoS Bowen in her sure-to-be-unpopular-no-matter-what decision.

Along with the out-of-practice enthusiasm of voting integrity advocates and average citizens in California and across the nation, Bowen’s action is sure to garner a huge push-back by vendors and their dependent election officials. We got a taste of that at the hearing in Sacramento this last week where SoS Bowen was attacked by one registrar of voters after another for her attempts to bring about honest, accurate, and secure elections. What’s wrong with this picture?

Since I’ve been laid up and out of touch, I’ve missed any of the organized counterattacks to come from the vendors, who see their multi-billion dollar boondoggle at risk. I’m quite sure that the campaign will gain speed and ferocity in the days to come. It will be interesting to see what the press does with it. Will they turn over a new leaf and finally see this as a story of huge national import? Or will they continue as they have been going, which caused Project Censored to make “another year of distorted election coverage” #3 in the top 25 uncovered stories of 2006?

The California tests were pretty devastating in their evaluation of election technology currently used in our most populous state. They confirm prior tests showing problems with security, source codes, and accessibility, among other things. In John Gideon’s post at BradBlog last Tuesday, http://www.bradblog.com/?p=4890, he quotes the executive study on accessibility and goes on to say,
Notice that the researchers say, “none [of the machines] met the accessibility requirements of current law.” That’s federal and state law. The machines have been sold for years – and, in fact, the use of DRE [touch-screen voting] machines as a whole has been jammed down America’s polling place – on the basis that they meet federal HAVA mandates for an accessible means of voting in every polling place. And yet, the California analysts found, they are not accessible at all…
Bowen’s decision leaves one DRE per polling place for the disabled. We have been shown repeatedly how a person with access to even a single machine can corrupt an entire election. So this aspect of her decision is hard to understand, particularly given the bogus nature of the accessibility issue.

And let’s not let the hubbub over Bowen’s heroic actions overpower the other studies so recently released. The University of Connecticut hacked into a Diebold TSx DRE. John Washburn http://www.bradblog.com/?p=4902 in “Why VVPAT ‘Paper Trails’ Are Not Enough” describes how,
It is possible to alter the ballot definitions of the DRE. The alteration would create the behavior where the votes for two candidates are exchanged. Thus, the voter touches the screen next to the name of John Smith, the screen lights up the selection for John Smith, the voter verifiable paper audit trail prints the name John Smith, but, nonetheless, the invisible electronic ballot accrues the vote to Pocahontas.

So much for paper trails.

The UConn results cannot be assailed by any of the usual vendor arguments. Washburn writes that this study,
Provides an excellent counter to the oft-repeated vendor talking point that the California testing is similar to “giving keys to a thief”...The University of Connecticut team had no access to source code or any information which was not publicly available.

Also noteworthy was the report commissioned in Florida – a state renowned for election controversy. Florida State University Security and Assurance in Information Technology Laboratory (SAIT) essentially mirrored the findings of Black Box Voting/Harri Hursti during the infamous Leon County, Florida 2003 hack that was filmed in the HBO documentary special “Hacking Democracy, ” http://www.hackingdemocracy.com/, which showed that votes could be changed invisibly on the Diebold optical scanners. Worse yet, despite the fact that these vulnerabilities have been known by the manufacturer for a number of years, the problems have not been addressed nor satisfactorily corrected. So much for optical scanners being the answer to our prayers.

Let’s go back to The New York Times. Long ago, I gave up expecting real election news to be covered by my own Chicago rag, the Sun Times. It is now officially our go-to place for sports and Sudoko, nothing more. But, forgive me if I expected more from The New York Times.

Take the “Buy My Ballot, Please” piece on the editorial page of Saturday’s paper. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/04/opinion/04olin.html?_r=1&oref=slogin While I fully realize that this is an attempt at humor, is it too much to expect its basic premise to be correct? Olin kicks off the article by saying,
It is easy to understand the emerging consensus favoring a national standard for paper receipts from voting machines. You don’t have to see a grassy knoll at every polling place to harbor suspicions about ballot technology and to demand receipts verifying that the machine properly recorded your vote.

Has someone not been paying attention? The problem is WAY bigger than having a supposed receipt. The point is that the receipt guarantees nothing since we just saw in the UConn study cited earlier that apparent results are not the “real” results. I tend to lose my patience when people who should know better don’t. This guy is director of the Institute for Judicial Studies, not a seventh-grader fudging a social studies assignment.

A recent unsigned NYT editorial called for rushing through HR 811, Rep. Holt’s “election reform” bill. While the piece did cite numerous good points included in the bill, it missed some huge, potentially disastrous, ones that have turned off many well-informed citizens. I’m referring to the fact that in the newer version of the morphed and bulked up Holt bill (from five or six pages to over 60), select individuals are allowed to view the innards of the voting machines only after signing non-disclosure agreements that would subject them to severe penalties for any infractions. Seeing how difficult it’s been without such a clause, why would we want to make examining voting data more complicated and inaccessible?

A quick look at Alaska 2004 shows how it took voters a lawsuit and over two years to get access to voting records that were described as belonging to Diebold. State officials claimed that the release of the data would be “a threat to national security.” No kidding. See Brad Friedman’s “Alaska Is At It Again: Refuses to Release 2006 Election Database Despite Court Order.” http://www.bradblog.com/?p=3855#more-3855 When the voters finally got a hold of the electronic data, it was only to discover that it had been frequently accessed and altered – so much for computerized machinery inspiring voter confidence through its accuracy and integrity. And this was before the deluge of recent reports pointing out more flaws in this election system we call our “billion dollar baby.” You don’t have to be partisan to have this strain your credulity. I would call you prudent.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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