RealTime IT News

Electronic Voting Machines And The 'Political Hack'

Michael HickinsReporter's Notebook: The term "political hack" is taking on new meaning.

The threat of someone hacking an electronic voting machine is real enough, but at least folks on both sides of the aisle seem to be taking note.

Both Democrats and Republicans got more than they bargained for in the aftermath of GOPer Brian "No Recount Needed" Bilbray's by-the-skin-of-his-teeth victory over Francine Busby in the race to replace disgraced Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

It's not so much that Bilbray barely squeaked out a victory against a gaffe-prone Democratic neophyte in a cozy Republican stronghold. Observers see in this race a harbinger for the GOP's chances to hold onto the House in November.

But something far more important is raising flags about that election: Poll workers were allowed to take the machines home with them in the days leading up to the election. Say what?

According to my sources, the idea, in theory, was to let poll workers get an early start on election day morning.

Such election officials as Maryland State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone and voting experts such as Ted Selker like to point out that poll workers tend to rate high on the enthusiasm scale but low in the computer-savviness department.

They'd better be right where San Diego is concerned.

The Democrats have raised howls of protests, of course, and have demanded a recount. And while no one has alleged that any shenanigans took place between those poll workers and their machines, consensual or otherwise, the very suspicion that something shady did occur could undermine voters' confidence in the whole electoral process.

Imagine if something like this were to happen in 2008 in, say, Florida or Ohio.

I've gotten some subtle and not-so-subtle hints that the media (which is to say, me) is irresponsibly raising security concerns about electronic voting machines.

But if I'm guilty of rabble-rousing, so much the better. Forewarned is forearmed.

Given that less than half of all eligible voters are exercising their franchise, the last thing we should do is alienate the remainder by conducting elections they can't trust.

I've also been reminded that no one has ever proven that an electronic machine has been hacked during an election.

But it's also been demonstrated that it can be done. Quite easily, in fact.

Noted computer science and electronic voting machine experts like Doug Jones of the University of Iowa have exposed vulnerabilities in commercial off-the-shelf software used in almost all electronic voting systems. And other experts have done the same for specific features on those devices.

Eric Lazarus, who led the Brennan Center study now sending tremors up and down Capitol Hill, told me he doubts that election officials charged with writing security guidelines have ever done any kind of intrusion testing.

So, he asks, how would they know what can or can't be done?

I've also been lectured plenty on the advantages of electronic voting machines, particularly where usability is concerned. And we all know that voting has a checked history of intimidation and chicanery.

In the days of Boss Tweed, or even Chicago's Mayor Daley, political hacks could stuff ballot boxes, register dead people or use chain voting.

But what they couldn't do is change the result of an election without even going near a polling station.

Today, says Lazarus, Boss Tweed (or Karl Rove or James Carville) could pay someone to tweak the source code or insert a Trojan that could switch the electronic votes of honest voters.

Or, in jurisdictions where wireless components are in place, they could compromise hundreds of machines in order to swing elections on a larger scale.

The Brennan Center study led to one Congressional hearing, and more are planned.

And with Election Assistance Commission commissioner Donetta Davidson and National Institute of Standards and Technology director William Jeffrey drawing most of the fire, it felt like the good old days when Congress rode herd on inefficient bureaucracies, as opposed to the partisan bickering so prevalent in Congress lately.

Better yet, powerful Republican Vern Ehlers promised to hold hearings in September on the issue of requiring paper trails.

That would go a long way to ensuring voter confidence that their votes were counted correctly.

[* Reporter's Appendix: Chain voting occurs when a political operative fills in a blank ballot to his liking, and then hands it to a voter (presumably someone who has sold his vote). This voter, in turn, gets his own blank ballot on the way to the ballot box, slips it into his pocket, and uses the ballot the hack gave him. On his way out of the polling place, he hands the blank ballot to the operative, who repeats the operation with the next willing voter.]