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Are Elections Very Important?

Message Pokey Anderson
Are Elections Very Important?

by Pokey Anderson
September 2007

How much are people willing to give up, to vote?

Suffragists and African-Americans marched, went on hunger strikes, and endured beatings, police dog attacks and lynchings to secure their participation in this democracy.
What else would people risk, for democracy?

For generations young men, and now young women, have volunteered to put their lives on the line, to fight for this country, this democracy.

At the very birth of this country, the signers of the Declaration of Independence knew they were risking hanging at the hands of the British, who commanded the world's most powerful military. They wrote, "We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

On the day most delegates signed the Declaration, August 2, 1776, the Signers got word that there were 42,000 British sailors and soldiers offshore, awaiting an order to crush the American rebellion. And, there was some gallows humor.

Legend has it that John Hancock said, "Gentlemen, we must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together." The witty Benjamin Franklin replied, "Yes, we must indeed all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Another story has the portly Benjamin Harrison of Virginia joking with the slender Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts about the different ways in which they might "dance on air" if British troops strung them up. Harrison supposed that he would die quickly but that Gerry's lack of heft would leave him kicking for half an hour. (The Declaration and Its Heroic Signers," http://rpc.senate.gov/_files/62398Declaration.pdf)

Okay, but in monetary terms, how much are people willing to spend to WIN public office?

Total campaign spending for the 2004 elections, just for the top of the ticket -- presidential and Congressional -- reached almost $4 billion, nearly triple the cost of administering the election. The average cost of running and winning a seat in the House of Representatives has topped one million dollars. ("Saving Democracy," by Bill Moyers, February, 2006, http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0224-20.htm)

A Senate seat comes closer to $7.8 million." ("Outlawing Legal Bribery," by Joel Bleifuss, January 4, 2007, In These Times, http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2964). The totals spent on Senate races in 2006 were over $25 million per state in the ten largest states. (http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topraces.asp)

One financial slugfest in a Senate race stands out -- in 2004, a Republican challenger defeated the Democratic Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. Combined cost of campaign spending in that race worked out to about $100 per person to persuade them who to vote for in that Senate race.

How much do big corporations and other interest groups care about the votes of Congress?

The U.S. federal government is the largest consumer of goods and services in the world, spending $230 billion annually on goods and services. (Project on Government Oversight, http://pogo.org/p/x/archive.html) This fact is not lost on those who would influence those votes.

There are 34,785 registered lobbyists. That's 65 lobbyists shadowing each member of Congress, or, about the equivalent of two baseball teams chasing each member of Congress around.

In 2004, corporations, labor unions and interest groups spent more than $3 billion trying to influence the federal government, according to the Center for Public Integrity. One example: since 1998, Lockheed Martin Corp. spent roughly $89 million on lobbying and received $94 billion in government contracts. Another example: Big Pharma spent nearly $109 million and hired more than 800 lobbyists to ensure the passage of the Bush Administration's $535 billion Prescription Drug Bill.

What about stealing elections? Haven't they been stolen before? There will always be crooks, ya know.

There are really two reasons to have elections, aren't there?

1. Actually choose representatives, fairly and honestly.

2. Appear to choose representatives, fairly and honestly, so that everyone goes home convinced of the result.
All the rest is just fluff.
Can votes or elections be stolen? Sure they can, but the difference between stealing in a hand-counted paper ballot election (counting at the precinct) and an electronic election is the difference between successfully robbing a convenience store and successfully robbing Fort Knox. The scale of what can be accomplished by a few corrupt people is completely different.
Even a convenience store takes precautions, with video cameras, and stowing large bills away, so that the most that theoretically can be stolen is $35.
Electronic elections in this country are like having TAKE SOME FREE GOLD Day at Fort Knox. It's like leaving our community treasury out on the sidewalk.
Experts have said of the security level that it could maybe deter an eighth grader. William Arbaugh, after testing Diebold touchscreens for the State of Maryland: "There's no security that's going to be 100 percent effective. But the level of effort was pretty low," Arbaugh said. "A high school kid could do this. Right now, the bar is maybe 8th grade." ("Md. computer testers cast a vote: Election boxes easy to mess with," by Stephanie Desmon, "January 30, 2004, Sun (Maryland), http://www.sunspot.net/news/local/bal-te.md.machine30jan30,0,4050694.story?coll=bal-local-headlines).
"If you believe, as I do, that voting is one of our critical infrastructures, then you have to defend it like you do your power grid, your water supply," says former National Security Agency code breaker Michael Wertheimer, who also tested the Diebold touchscreens for the State of Maryland. ("The Vexations Of Voting Machines," by Viveca Novak, Time Magazine, April 26, 2004, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/printout/0,8816,1101040503-629410,00.html)

Is there really a danger?

A poll in our largest state indicates that those voters are not exactly convinced that our current election systems work. Of likely California voters in August 2007, less than half, only 44%, have a "great deal of confidence" that their votes are being accurately counted. More than half, 55%, have “some confidence” or “only a little confidence” or "no confidence" that their votes are being accurately counted. ("California Secretary of State Bowen Comments on Field Poll About Voter Confidence in Elections," by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, August 31, 2007, http://www.votetrustusa.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2573&Itemid=113)
Threat analysis is part of what computer security professionals do. Here's what nationally-known Stanford professor David Dill said about it:

"Think about it rationally. What are the assets being protected? If we're talking presidential elections or control of Congress, there aren't a lot of assets in this world in monetary terms that are worth more than that. You're talking about the whole US economy. ... There are people who may be interested in effecting election outcomes who may have massive resources. And [who] either are very sophisticated or can buy people who are very sophisicated to mess with the machines. We've got a hard problem [of defending voting machine security] when we're up against sophisticated people." (Prof. David Dill, Rice University, February 25, 2004).

Even the Pentagon has a hard problem defending itself against hackers. "The Pentagon logged more than 79,000 attempted intrusions in 2005. About 1,300 were successful, including the penetration of computers linked to the Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the 4th Infantry Division." (The Times [UK], September 8, 2007, http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/the_web/article2409865.ece )

With such a large prize at stake -- control or strong influence on government decisions and the public treasury -- the magnitude of the danger of electronic vote theft remains quite underappreciated, or willfully ignored, by most officials in position to counter such attacks.

Identity theft is now rampant, with financial losses estimated at $50 billion per year several years ago, and growing. (FTC press release, Sept. 3, 2003.)

If our identity as a nation was stolen by election theft, how long would it take for us to figure it out?

Or, as computer security expert Bruce O'Dell put it, in testimony to the New Hampshire Legislature:

"Undetected widespread covert manipulation of computerized voting systems is the functional equivalent of invasion and occupation by a foreign power. In either case the people lose control of their own destinies, perhaps permanently. Undetected covert manipulation of voting systems could even be worse than mere invasion, since the “electoral coup” would appear to occur with the illusion of the manufactured consent of the governed, and there would be no “tanks in the street” to galvanize resistance."

("Computer Security Expert Bruce O'Dell: Testimony to NH Legislature," September 9, 2007, OpEd News, http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_nancy_to_070909_computer_security_ex.htm)

How long will it take for us to demand to use a simple, inexpensive election method that has far fewer angles of attack than electronic voting -- paper ballots marked by humans, counted by humans, at the precinct.
Over the past four years, Pokey Anderson has interviewed dozens of computer experts, attorneys, journalists, election officials and citizens involved in election issues around the country. Her most recent research on the vulnerabilities of electronic voting machines can be found at "Peering Through Chinks in the Armor of High-Tech Elections," http://www.votersunite.org/info/PeeringThruChinks.pdf. She co-anchors a wide-ranging news analysis show, The Monitor (http://themonitor.wordpress.com), airing Sundays on KPFT in Houston.

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Pokey Anderson has broadcast or published numerous reports on voting machine issues over the past four years. She co-produces a weekly news and analysis radio program, The Monitor on KPFT-Pacifica in Houston. A previous article was "Even a Remote (more...)
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