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Midterm Madness

It’s becoming increasingly clear that US midterm elections could be something of a disaster. Lots of smart commentators are predicting problems with new voting machines, problems with voter ID requirements and long delays at polling places, which can lead to de-facto disenfranchisement.

It’s not news that the voting system in the US doesn’t work perfectly. Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Rolling Stone article, “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” offers a catalog of “anomalies” that call the victory of Bush over Kerry in Ohio and New Mexico into doubt. And the 2000 election, with hanging chads, was hardly trouble-free.

But what’s so interesting is that the steps taken to avoid another hanging chad debacle may have further undermined Americans’ confidence in our voting system. Jon Stokes, writing on Ars Technica, suggests that thousands of American communities, spurred by fears of broken elections or statewide mandates to improve voting systems, purchased untested “alpha” versions of election machines that are vulnerable to breakage, hacking and several other flavors of failure.

Stokes’s article is an excellent tour of vulnerabilities being discovered in various voting machines and systems. Bev Harris – the relentless activist featured in “Hacking Democracy”, a documentary which aired last night – has published step by step instructions for voting multiple times on a Sequoia voting machine. The instructions don’t require any tools, just pressing a yellow button the back of a voting machine. Neither Sequoia or the Secretary of State of California (where the machines are in use) deny that the machine can be hacked this way – instead, they assure Harris that the machines will be watched vigilantly. (Stokes points out that the median age of poll workers in the US is 69. It’s possible that some of those workers are hard of hearing and might have trouble detecting the beep made when someone presses that yellow button…)

A report from the UConn VoTeR Center, (don’t ask me – that’s how they spell it…) commissioned by the Connecticut Secretary of State, shows that optical scan systems from Diebold are wholly reprogrammable by a rogue poll worker using a laptop and a null modem cable (which every geek is required to carry with her at all times.) While this attack involves some sophistication, they show another technique which requires none at all – attach two Post-It notes to your ballot and you can vote as many times as you want, pulling the ballot back out of the machine and reinserting it. Again, there are ways to mitigate these vulnerabilities, most of which involve watching voting machines like a hawk and making sure no one implements these techniques.

Thousands of US soldiers serving abroad will be voting via email. According to critics of the system they will use, as reported by the San Jose Mercury News, “Soldiers are not informed that ballots they e-mail directly to the Department of Defense will be processed by an outside contractor, whose executives have made contributions to Republican organizations.” Furthermore, the soldiers must waive their right to a secret ballot when voting through this system, opening the ugly possibility of vote buying or tactics used to persuade soldiers to vote for certain candidates.

While most of these attacks are theoretical, there’s reason to believe that voting systems will see some problems in practice. There are already reports of touchscreen systems in Florida presenting voters with Republican selections when they’d chosen Democratic candidates. While most of these problems were fixed within the polling place, they contribute to a general atmosphere of suspicion about fairness of the election.

This perception of fairness is critical to the success of an election. Elections don’t just need to be free and fair – they need to be accepted as free and fair by the vast majority of the public, or conflict over the results can destabilize a government.

It’s worth asking why the results of the 2004 election weren’t widely challenged. The simple answer is that Kerry decided not to let a second, consecutive Presidential election head into a court battle. Doing so would have raised the question of whether any future US presidental contest could proceed smoothly. But there’s another factor worth considering – after a long, brutal campaign, most voters went into the polls unsure of what would transpire. As a Kerry supporter, I was surprised (and elated) by exit polls showing a decisive Kerry victory. I was later confused by final results which gave the election to Bush. But I wasn’t surprised that we’d lost what was sure to be a close election, just deeply disappointed.

With the 2006 midterm elections, we’ve experienced months of media predictions that the Democrats will trounce Republicans and will reclaim the House and possibly the Senate. If this proves not to be the case, I wonder whether reactions will be as measured. I doubt they will be. Challenging the fairness of individual House elections doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as challenging a Presidential election – I have to assume that both parties are “lawyering up” for any possible challenges.

In giving talks about technology in the developing world, I often talk about the role of mobile phones in the 2000 Presidential elections in Ghana. The elections were pivotal – they were the first time in two decades that Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who’d taken power twice in coups, wasn’t participating in elections, and where the opposition party had a strong chance for victory. The polling went smoothly… and when it didn’t, voters with mobile phones called local radio stations to report trouble at polling places. The logic of calling the radio station? If they’d called the police station, the police might not have responded, claiming they hadn’t heard reports of vote fraud. By calling the radio station and broadcasting the reports publicly, they guaranteed police response.

The opposition candidate, John Kufuor, won the election. My good friend, Koby Koomson, knew that he was about to lose his job as Ghana’s ambassador to the United States. But he was so elated by the clean election that he wrote a letter to President Clinton, offering Ghana’s assistance in working through the troubles with the Florida elections!

But while the creative use of mobile phones and radios makes me happy for my Ghanaian friends, the need to support efforts like the Election Transparency Project just makes me sad. It’s unlikely that voting fraud in the US is going to be as visible as it is in African states, where polling places can be closed by violence, or ballots burned by a mob after drunken soldiers killed election officials. Instead, voting fraud here could be very hard to see, and very hard to determine until after the fact. I’m glad that efforts are taking place to monitor polling places and create watchful citizens, but I’m not optimistic about their effectiveness.

I hope Tuesday’s vote goes off without a hitch. I hope it leads to at least one house of Congress coming into Democratic hands, if only so that Congressional investigations can help figure out why Iraq and Afghanistan have gone so badly wrong. But I’m not counting on it, and my fears about the fairness of the election leave me feeling sadder about this election than I’ve felt in a while.

I’m fairly confident that my vote will get counted. When I lived in Williamstown, voting took place on xerox’d slips of paper – you put a check in the checkbox for the candidate you wanted with a pencil and slid the paper into an old wooden box, where an election worker turned a crank until the bell rang. In Lanesboro, we use the clunky metal lever machines that I remember from my childhood in New York. In other words, no fear of malfunctioning touchscreens here.

But I also know that my vote here won’t count. The action in my state is in the Democratic primaries, not the contest between Republicans and Democrats. I’ll vote because it’s the right thing to do, lining up behind the two policemen on duty at 7am. They vote and get into their patrol cars. I vote and drive across the state to the Berkman Center. I’ll do so, hoping that Deval Patrick will be our new governor, and wondering just when we’ll know who controls the House and Senate. I bet we won’t know Tuesday night.

1 thought on “Midterm Madness”

  1. I suspect that the Dems will win most of the individual elections that they were expected to, but that the Repubs will be the ones calling “e-voting fraud” on anything even marginally close — eventually throwing the choice to the relevant governor or state supreme court, or the Republican-controlled national supreme court.

    If they were truly Machiavellian, the Repubs would actually have selected races hacked to give ridiculously overwhelming victories to Democrats, to further de-legitimize the overall election.

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