Fwd: NYTimes.com Article: Machine Politics in the Digital Age

From: Arthur Keller <arthur_at_kellers_dot_org>
Date: Tue Nov 11 2003 - 18:54:10 CST

--- begin forwarded text

Machine Politics in the Digital Age

November 9, 2003

IN mid-August, Walden W. O'Dell, the chief executive of
Diebold Inc., sat down at his computer to compose a letter
inviting 100 wealthy and politically inclined friends to a
Republican Party fund-raiser, to be held at his home in a
suburb of Columbus, Ohio. "I am committed to helping Ohio
deliver its electoral votes to the president next year,"
wrote Mr. O'Dell, whose company is based in Canton, Ohio.

That is hardly unusual for Mr. O'Dell. A longtime
Republican, he is a member of President Bush's "Rangers and
Pioneers,'' an elite group of loyalists who have raised at
least $100,000 each for the 2004 race.

But it is not the only way that Mr. O'Dell is involved in
the election process. Through Diebold Election Systems, a
subsidiary in McKinney, Tex., his company is among the
country's biggest suppliers of paperless, touch-screen
voting machines.

Judging from Federal Election Commission data, at least
eight million people will cast their ballots using Diebold
machines next November. That is 8 percent of the number of
people who voted in 2000, and includes all voters in the
states of Georgia and Maryland and those in various
counties of California, Virginia, Texas, Indiana, Arizona
and Kansas.

Some people find Mr. O'Dell's pairing of interests - as
voting-machine magnate and devoted Republican fund-raiser -
troubling. To skeptics, including more than a few
Democrats, it raises at least the appearance of an ethical
problem. Some of the chatter on the Internet goes so far as
to suggest that he could use his own machines to sway the

Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, does not buy
such conspiracy theories, but he said he was appalled at
the situation.

"It's outrageous," he said. "Not only does Mr. O'Dell want
the contract to provide every voting machine in the nation
for the next election - he wants to 'deliver' the election
to Mr. Bush. There are enough conflicts in this story to
fill an ethics manual."

Mr. O'Dell declined to be interviewed for this article, but
a company official said that his political affiliations had
nothing to do with Diebold's operations, and that the
company derived the bulk of its revenue from A.T.M.'s, not
voting machines. "This is not Diebold; this is Wally O'Dell
personally," said Thomas W. Swidarski, senior vice
president for strategic development and global marketing at
Diebold, who works closely with Mr. O'Dell. "The issue has
been misconstrued."

BUT the controversy surrounding Diebold goes beyond its
chief executive's political activities. In July, professors
at Johns Hopkins University and Rice University analyzed
the software code for the company's touch-screen voting
machines and concluded that there was "no evidence of
rigorous software engineering discipline" and that
"cryptography, when used at all, is used incorrectly."

Making matters worse, the software code for the machines
was discovered in January by a Seattle-area writer on a
publicly accessible Internet site. That the code was
unprotected constitutes a significant security lapse by
Diebold, said Aviel D. Rubin, an associate professor of
computer science at Johns Hopkins, co-author of the study
of the code.

Mr. Swidarski said the code on the Internet site was
outdated and was not now in use in machines.

About 15,000 internal Diebold e-mail messages also found
their way to the Internet. Some referred to software
patches installed on Diebold machines days before
elections. Others indicated that the Microsoft Access
database used in Diebold's tabulation servers was not
protected by passwords. Diebold, which says passwords are
now installed on machines, is threatening legal action
against anyone who posts the files or links to them,
contending that the e-mail is copyrighted.

A recent report for the state of Maryland by SAIC, an
engineering and research firm, has added to concerns about
the security of Diebold's systems. It recommended 17 steps
that Maryland election officials could take to ensure
better security when using Diebold's machines.

The company seized upon this as evidence that its systems,
if used properly, were secure. But the report's overall
assessment was not particularly upbeat. "The system, as
implemented in policy, procedure and technology, is at high
risk of compromise," SAIC wrote.

It has been a bumpy couple of months for Mr. O'Dell, 58,
who is known as Wally and spent 33 years at Emerson
Electric before joining what is now Diebold Election
Systems. Associates say he was stunned by the reaction to
his August letter and now regrets writing it.

"Wally's going to take a lower profile on this stuff," Mr.
Swidarski said. But Mr. Swidarski did not indicate that Mr.
O'Dell would put a halt to all of his political activities.
Those have included attendance at a Bush fund-raiser in
Cincinnati on Sept. 30 and a flight to Crawford, Tex., in
August for a Pioneers and Rangers meeting attended by the

Other Diebold executives have contributed to President
Bush's re-election campaign. According to data reported to
the Federal Election Commission, 11 executives have added a
total of $22,000 to the president's campaign coffers this
year. No money from Diebold or its executives has gone to
Democratic presidential candidates this year.

The controversy over security has started to affect
Diebold's business. Last week, the office of the California
secretary of state halted certification of Diebold's latest
touch-screen voting machines, which individual counties are
considering using. In Wisconsin, security concerns have
soured election officials' perceptions of computerized
voting. "We were already not strongly in favor of it, but
the whole problem has changed when you're getting e-mails
every week saying, 'You're not going to do this, right?' "
said Kevin J. Kennedy, director of Wisconsin's election

Matt Summerville, an analyst at McDonald Investments in
Cleveland, said the California decision could cause Diebold
to book less revenue in its voting division this year than
it had hoped. "It has certainly made their business a
little more challenging," said Mr. Summerville, who expects
the voting division to contribute $113 million this year to
Diebold's total revenue of $2.1 billion.

So far, investors have not seemed concerned. Diebold's
stock is up almost 36 percent for the year.

Until recently, Diebold's voting business looked extremely
promising. Florida's electoral fiasco in 2000 confirmed
what many state and county election officials had known for
years: that punch-card systems were outdated. Encouraged by
a new federal law that set aside $3.9 billion for voting
improvements, many states and counties are moving rapidly
to computer-based systems.

Analysts say the biggest beneficiaries of the federal
dollars are likely to be Diebold, Election Systems &
Software in Omaha and Sequoia Voting Systems, based in
Oakland, Calif. So far, Washington has provided $650
million to states to buy new voting machines and improve
the election process, though most of that has yet to be
spent. An additional $830 million is waiting to be
disbursed as soon as a new national oversight committee for
elections is established.

NOT everyone is convinced that spending hundreds of
millions of dollars to computerize the nation's voting is a
good thing. The Johns Hopkins and SAIC reports are part of
a growing chorus of criticism about the reliability and
safety of paperless voting systems.

"There's a feeling in the computer scientist community of
utter dismay about the state of voting-machine technology,"
said Douglas W. Jones, an associate professor of computer
science at the University of Iowa and a member of Iowa's
board of examiners for voting machines.

David L. Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford,
said: "If I was a programmer at one of these companies and
I wanted to steal an election, it would be very easy. I
could put something in the software that would be
impossible for people to detect, and it would change the
votes from one party to another. And you could do it so
it's not going to show up statistically as an anomaly.''

Diebold says there are enough checks and balances in the
system to catch this. "Programmers do not set up the
elections; election officials do," Mr. Swidarski said. "All
a programmer knows are numbers, which are not assigned to
real people and parties until set-up time."

But Professor Dill says the inherent complexity of software
code makes it nearly impossible to ensure that computerized
elections are fair. He advocates that machines be required
to print out a paper ballot, which voters can use to verify
their selections and which will serve as an audit trail in
the event of irregularities or recounts.

Touch-screen machines from Diebold, called AccuVotes, do
not have such a "voter verified" paper trail. ES&S and
Sequoia are working on prototypes for machines with
printers. Diebold's machines are like A.T.M.'s, in that
voters touch their selection and hit "enter" to record
their votes onto memory cards inside each terminal. After
voting has ended, the memory cards are inserted into a
Diebold server at each precinct. The results are tabulated
and sent by modem, or the data disks are sent to a central

Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist and president of the
consulting firm Notable Software, who has been studying
election systems for 14 years, says the trouble with this
system is that it is secretive. It prohibits anyone from
knowing whether the data coming out of the terminals
represents what voters actually selected. If someone were
to challenge election results, the data in memory cards and
the software running the voting terminals could be examined
only by Diebold representatives.

MS. MERCURI ran up against this last year, when she served
as a consultant in a contested city council election in
Boca Raton, Fla. Her request to look at the software inside
the city's machines, made by Sequoia, to see if there were
any bugs or malfunctions, was denied by a judge on the
grounds that the technology was protected by trade-secret
clauses. Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold routinely include such
clauses in their contracts.

"These companies are basically saying 'trust us,' " Ms.
Mercuri said. "Why should anybody trust them? That's not
the way democracy is supposed to work."

Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, is
leading an effort to make computerized voting more
transparent. His bill, introduced this year, would require
that computerized voting systems produce a voter-verified
paper ballot and that the software code be publicly

The bill, in the House Administration Committee, has 60
co-sponsors, all Democrats.

"Someone said to me the other day, 'We've had these
electronic voting machines for several years now and we've
never had a problem.' And I said, 'How do you know?' and he
couldn't answer that," Representative Holt said. "The job
of verification shouldn't belong to the company; it should
belong to the voter."

Diebold said it would be willing to attach ballot printers
to touch-screen machines if customers wanted them. But Mr.
Swidarski said elections boards were not clamoring for it.
"We're agnostic to it," he said.

Mr. Swidarski disputed the assertion that Diebold's systems
are vulnerable to tampering. Before each election, he said,
the software goes through rigorous testing and
certification by one of three companies contracted through
the National Association of State Election Directors. Those
companies "go through every line of code," he said. "It's
an extensive process that takes several months, and then
the machines go for testing at the state level."

Critics say that the certification process is not as
thorough as the companies would have people believe, and
that the resulting reports, like the technology, are not
available for public inspection. This opacity is what
worries detractors most.

"We know from Enron and WorldCom that when accounting is
weak, crooks have been known to take over," Professor Jones
said. "If vulnerabilities exist in any voting system for a
long enough time, someone's going to exploit it."



Get Home Delivery of The New York Times Newspaper. Imagine
reading The New York Times any time & anywhere you like!
Leisurely catch up on events & expand your horizons. Enjoy
now for 50% off Home Delivery! Click here:


For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters
or other creative advertising opportunities with The
New York Times on the Web, please contact
onlinesales@nytimes.com or visit our online media
kit at http://www.nytimes.com/adinfo

For general information about NYTimes.com, write to

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

--- end forwarded text

Arthur M. Keller, Ph.D., 3881 Corina Way, Palo Alto, CA  94303-4507
tel +1(650)424-0202, fax +1(650)424-0424
= The content of this message, with the exception of any external 
= quotations under fair use, are released to the Public Domain    
Received on Sun Nov 30 23:17:02 2003

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun Nov 30 2003 - 23:17:12 CST