When the little-known U.S. Election Assistance Commission held its first public hearing on electronic voting in early May, most of the talk was about technology: Are the ATM-like touch-screen voting machines currently being used or considered by many states reliable, vulnerable to hackers, more or less accurate than the punch cards and other paper ballots that were at the center of the Florida vote-count fiasco in 2000?
As Michael Grebb reports for the online Wired News (May 6, 2004), representatives of voting-machine manufacturers such as Diebold and Sequoia Voting Systems clashed with skeptics, including Johns Hopkins University computer scientist Avi Rubin, co-author of a July 2003 report pointing to numerous security 'holes' in Diebold's system that could allow intruders to rig or steal an election. Rubin called for printed receipts and other elements of a paper trail to guard against electronic fraud. The industry reps replied with claims that their systems had performed well in elections such as the California recall of October 2003, and that the pool of potential hackers is actually smaller than the number of people who might intervene to spoil or alter paper ballots.
For other observers, however, the problems with electronic voting run much deeper. In an article for The Humanist (Jan./Feb. 2004), Michael I. Niman puts it succinctly: 'The problem the United States faces is bigger than one of machines and technology. It involves a crisis of confidence brought on by a crisis of conflicts of interest.' According to Niman, Walden 'Wally' O'Dell, the chairman and CEO of Ohio-based Diebold, is a member of George W. Bush's 'Pioneers' fund-raising group and once declared in a letter that he was 'committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president' in 2004. An even more important player in the industry is Election Systems and Software (ES&S), whose corporate predecessor, American Information Systems (AIS), was chaired in the early '90s by Omaha investment banker Chuck Hagel. Slightly less than eight months after stepping down from his AIS post, Hagel ran as a Republican for the Senate in Nebraska. AIS held the contract to count over 80 percent of Nebraska's votes. Underdog Hagel triumphed in both the primary and the general elections, winning a majority in every demographic group in the state, including African Americans, who hadn't voted Republican in modern times. When Hagel posted another landslide victory in 2002, his opponent called for a recount.
It didn't happen. The state's contract with what was now ES&S didn't allow outsiders to examine the software used in the machines. Such software has been judged in court to be the private property of the voting-machine companies -- ruling out all vetting of it by governmental or party bodies suspecting fraud.
A groundswell of alarm about the voting-machine situation has been spreading from state to state, with California going so far as the ban the use of many Diebold machines in the fall election because of security concerns. But the potential threat to the democratic process may get worse before it gets better. 'Many of the new elections contracts give the responsibility for counting the votes not to election officials but to the companies [that] built and maintain the machines,' Niman writes. 'In other words, the most sacred and tenuous process in U.S. democracy, counting the votes, has been outsourced.'