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Dan Rather

Dan Rather

Posted: October 26, 2010 12:29 PM

Digital Democracy in Doubt

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The upcoming midterm elections will be historic, not because of whom we vote for but how we vote: For the first time some form of electronic voting machine will tally ballots in all 50 states. This new digital democracy is the culmination of the federal 2002 Help America Vote Act -- a nearly $4 billion upgrade of voting machines approved after the disastrous 2000 Florida presidential election, which infamously left the fate of our country hanging by a chad.

The new computers are designed to count votes faster and more accurately than the clunky old levered, punch card and butterfly ballot machines. And laudably, they will make it easier for tens of thousands of disabled voters to cast ballots. But the new electronic voting, or e-voting, machines also have raised as many questions as they have answered. And they all boil down to the very definition of a democracy: How can the public be sure that each vote counts?

In our latest segment examining the use of e-voting machines, "Das Vote," we will show again that there's no guarantee that these machines count votes correctly. Indeed, since 2000, there have been several cases of certain types of e-voting machines mis-recording votes. A number of voting precincts have since spent considerable money upgrading their e-voting machines so they also record a paper record. But many are simply relying on their citizens to have faith in technology that few understand.

Download the show on iTunes

Our report centers on a group of computer savvy activists who have proven how naïve and dangerous this trust could be. The activists have used their technological know-how to demonstrate that most, if not all, e-voting machines can be hacked. Quite simply, this means that someone with computer programming skills could change the result of an election.

The strongest case we came across was made by the Dutch activist Rop Gonggrijp. In a video he provided us, Gonggrijp and friends showed they were able to change the votes recorded by a popular e-voting machine in under a minute. Like most e-voting critics, Gonggrijp is neither anti-computer nor afraid of technology -- he is a hacker himself and has made a good living using computers. But what he knows about computers scares him when they are used for voting. "I'm very much into technology, so one of my main topics in my life is telling people that yes you can do all sorts of things with technology," he told us. "But the technology also has drawbacks and it has things it can't do."

Gonggrijp incongruously has pushed for a return to paper ballots.

It's worth noting that paper ballots historically have been far from foolproof in preventing election fraud. As recently as the last month's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, there were widespread reports of ballot stuffing, observed by independent monitors. It's hard to hide ballot stuffing - and there's usually little attempt to do so by corrupt officials. And that's what Gonggrijp and others say makes paper ballots better than e-voting machines. When there's corruption, at least it's open. There's no way to know when a virtual ballot box is being stuffed.

The e-voting machines' inherent lack of transparency and vulnerability to hackers, as demonstrated by Gonggrijp and other activists, led three European governments to warehouse tens of millions of dollars worth of computerized voting machines. As of last year, citizens in Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands are now back to using what former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern once referred to derisively as "stupid old pencils."

The United States, of course, has taken a different tack. In spite of the flaws exposed by U.S.-based hackers and activists -- groups such as Black Box Voting and Verified Voting -- states here continued a spending spree on e-voting machines. And they did so unencumbered by federal oversight. As of now, there is no federal body monitoring problems with e-voting machines.

Larry Norden, a scholar of voting technology at New York University's law school, finds it implausible that the same federal government that monitors consumer goods like baby powder and automobiles is asking us to blindly trust e-voting machines. "I think it's outrageous," he said. "To me, there's no explanation for why we regulate toasters so much more thoroughly than we do a voting machine. This is our democracy. There are few things more important than voting and making sure that all votes are counted accurately."


Dan Rather Reports' "Das Vote" aired October 26 at 8 PM and 11 PM Eastern on HDNet. You can now download the show on iTunes.