Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Computer Ate My Vote

I want to relate a story I found online from the Houston Chronicle. Seems that Hidalgo County had a brush with “The Computer Ate My Vote”. This south Texas county had a heavily favored Democrat running for state House against a Constitution Party candidate. Teresa Navarro, the elections administrator said the problem was in the software written to compile totals.

The machines in use were made by ES&S, on whose machines some 67 million voters cast ballots this election. The machines were reporting that long shot Avery was 2,000 votes ahead of incumbent Henry Cuellar. “We knew there was no way that could be correct”, said Navarro. According to Scott Heywood, spokesman for the Secretary of State, “the situation was dealt with appropriately, and handled well once the problem was realized. Here in Texas, voters can feel confident that their votes were counted in the way they cast them”.

Well, not so fast Scotty me lad. Let's look back at that quote. The key phrase is “once the problem was realized”. What if this machine had started “flipping” votes in a race that was maybe 52% to 48%? Navarro said their initial clue was the improbability of the result, not some internal automatic audit built into the voting system. Had this happened in a close race, it is very likely Hidalgo County would be preparing to swear in the wrong candidate.

Vote flipping is not that rare a problem. Allegations of that are rampant in Maryland and parts of Virginia, some in Texas, including Tarrant County, which uses Hart Intercivic, our company. In Maryland, election officials were so concerned they were asking voters to show up with their camera phones in hand so that possibly they could catch the touch screen machines as they flipped and have evidence of what they were claiming to see. That remedy may not be legal in Texas. I know poll watchers are forbidden under 33.051 of election code to possess any “means of recording images or sound”.

I mention Hildalgo County because in this instance we are not talking about “allegations” or investigations underway. Everybody involved agrees on what happened, that part is established. Where I fall out with them is the rosy picture they paint of this being an indication that e-voting is just hunky-dory. This foul-up was only caught by the luck of its having yielded so wildly improbable a result.

The next time you hear someone from say, Abilene or Lubbock crowing about having a result by 9:30 or so, bear in mind, thats exactly what they have; a result. Whether that result bears any resemblance to actual votes cast is not something I would not be so quick to sign off on until the system has been by some circumstance tested. In a way, we in Tom Green County are lucky to have had back-to-back recounts, with another on the way. I was present at both recounts, may be part of this one, I have volunteered. We have seen, up close and personal, some problems in the system.

Absent a verifiable paper trail or a VVPAT requirement, a recount of e-votes is really meaningless. All the machines can do is spit out the same results every time you hit “print”. In fact if a machine were to do anything else, then you would really know you had a problem. That would be new election time.

Check out either BlackBoxVoting or VotersUnite online, both do excellent, non-partisan research on e-voting and they are involved in numerous lawsuits nationwide. There are literally thousands of credible reports of e-vote problems. At this time, has posted over 200 problems in Texas, this election, and the hits just keep on coming. Spend an hour or so trolling these two sites and tell me how secure you feel about e-voting. So far, none has been proven to be intentional fraud, which is actually scarier than not. If the systems are making this many mistakes by accident or poor design, what will happen when the stakes get high enough to make real vote theft worthwhile?

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