THE BLOG
09/03/2015 12:28 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2016

The Black Box: Voting Machines

Computer Vote Tampering and Vote Counting Irregularities

The 2014 midterm election results may have been a complete farce. All it takes is one insider who knows how to flip a switch and the outcome changes. When it comes to voting, should we trust our votes to a computer that doesn't even spit out a receipt for confirmation? Do you trust your voting machine manufacturer?

Private companies like ES&S, Dominion (previously of Diebold or Sequoia), Smartmatic, and Hart Intercivic make most of the electronic voting machines. Three of five board members at Hart Intercivic are board members at HIG Capital, a global private equity firm that made a significant investment in the voting machine company. The Washington Post reported "HIG employees as a whole have donated $338,000 to the Romney campaign this year, according to Open Secrets." Hart supplied the electronic voting machines that were used in the 2012 elections in precincts in Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington, Colorado and many other states.

These connections between candidates and voting machines are too close for my comfort. But it isn't just the cozy relationship that matters. It's important to know who has their hands on the ballots and the votes. In study after study, electronic machines have proven incredibly easy to rig.1,2,3,4,5,6 At Princeton University, researchers found that in less than one minute, a criminal could bypass the lock using a simple tool and replace the memory card with one containing malicious code. It's so easy to open the box that the researchers show how it is done in a video. "Any desired algorithm can be used to determine which votes to steal and to which candidate or candidates to transfer the stolen votes."

The abstract of the Princeton study goes on: "Malicious software running on a single voting machine can steal votes with very little risk of detection. The malicious software can modify all of the records, audit logs, and counter kept by the voting machine so that even careful forensic examination...will find nothing amiss." One machine can be rigged within less than a minute and then it goes viral. "An attacker could infect a large population of machines while only having temporary access to a single machine or memory card." And bear in mind, if you work for the elections office, you don't even need a key.

It really comes down to this: do you trust the people counting your ballot? "In more than 3,000 counties, parishes and independent cities, voter registration and precinct polling places are still controlled by party functionaries...whose loyalty resides with the leaders of their particular faction, rather than with the people" writes John R. MacArthur, author of You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.7

Besides computer rigging, there is the problem of absentee ballots. My precinct does "polling place voting" where the poll workers have a long list of neighbors they check off as each warm body takes a ballot. This system assures that each person is who they say they are and each voter casts only one vote. By comparison, Oregon and Washington mail out ballots whether you ask for them or not.8 Washington state has become the first to have nearly all mail-in voting. In both states, to verify that the voter is authentic, human counters compare signatures on the registration form to the ballot.

A voter with a legitimate reason to use an absentee ballot, but who forgets to include a copy of their photo ID when mailing it in, may have their vote tossed out unless they hand-carry their paperwork to the proper authorities. To prevent these problems, visit http://www.longdistancevoter.org/forms to find out about absentee ballots.

In 2012, one in five Americans (27 million people), voted by absentee ballot. Of those, 258,000 absentee ballots were thrown out for arriving late in the mail, not having valid signatures, not having a matching signature, or "other."

If a voter forgets to bring his ID to the polls, shows up at the wrong precinct, or his name isn't listed on the roll, he can receive a provisional ballot and has a few days to clear up the problem. However, many poll workers don't know how to instruct voters to use their provisional ballot, and sometimes they don't offer them. Project Vote reports that in the 2006 general election, fifteen states rejected more than 50% of their provisional ballots, Kentucky counting less than 7%. Voters who are experiencing difficulties at the poll can call 866-OUR-VOTE for help.

After the 2014 midterms, Jim Allen, a spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Elections, said, "We did have a rocky start in a number of polling places where we had insufficient judges and/or equipment issues," citing that 2,000 election judges didn't show up as planned. It may have been a result of a "new dirty trick" whereby robocalls placed specifically to the judges instructed them to go to training sessions and told them how to vote. "You're telling people how to vote in a federal election and implying that it has to do with their employment."

Voting expert Bev Harris, author of Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century, describes the black box as "any voting system in which the mechanisms for recording and/or tabulating the vote are hidden from the voter, and/or the mechanism lacks a tangible record of the vote cast."

In her book, Ms. Harris recommends a method for authenticating our votes. She writes, "In the U.S., we complain that our citizens don't think their vote matters. Here's a concept: Let people see their vote. Not a video representation of a vote hiding in a black box, but the actual vote. Count votes before they leave the neighborhood. Invite people in to watch the counting. And add a 21st century twist: install a web camera, so citizens can watch the vote-counting live, on the Internet."

I made friends at the League of Women Voters and asked the President of the Los Angeles chapter for help organizing a voter veracity program throughout the League. He referred me to a woman named Judy Alter who, since 2003, has dedicated her life to making sure our votes are counted accurately. Judy works with the Election Defense Alliance and Protectcaliforniaballots.org. She said, "ten thousand people [who fight for accurate vote counting] can't stop the computer insiders who rig the elections, but we can demand a return to paper ballots. 78% of the world's democracies use paper ballots."9 Judy recommended using Poll Tape Capture to compare the actual count at each precinct against the reported count. But it's up to us, the voters who want to track the ballots, to do the counting.

Those who want to perform this important public service can find instructions in Appendix 10 of my book, Poll Tape Capture Instructions for Volunteers.

Today's post is part three of a six-part series on voting, found in Chapter 30 of In Search of the Next POTUS: One Woman's Quest to Fix Washington, a True Story. Follow this blog to receive the next three segments of this article.

1. Pollack, Peter. "Diebold Voting Machines Hacked in Florida." Ars Technica. Arstechnica.com, 22 Dec. 2005. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2005/12/5821-2/
2. Collier, Victoria. "How to Rig an Election." Harpers Magazine. Harpers.org, Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://harpers.org/archive/2012/11/how-to-rig-an-election/
3. "Hacking Democracy." YouTube. Cinedigm, 3 June 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vx1vxPFXIiw
4. Klimas, Liz. "More Electronic Voting Machines Changing Romney Votes to Obama: We Looked Into It and Here's What a Vendor Told Us." The Blaze. Theblaze.com, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/10/31/more-electronic-voting-machines-changing-romney-votes-to-obama-we-looked-into-it-and-heres-what-a-vendor-told-us/
5. Carrasco, Ed. "Election Day Rigging? Voting Machine Changes Obama Votes to Romney [VIDEO]." NMR. Newmediarockstars.com, 6 Nov. 2012. Web. http://newmediarockstars.com/2012/11/election-day-rigging-voting-machine-changes-obama-votes-to-romney-video/
36. "Rigged USA Elections Exposed." YouTube. Truthstream, 2 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEzY2tnwExs
6. "Center for Information Technology Policy » Voting Videos." Center for Information Technology Policy » Voting Videos. Princeton University, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://citpsite.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/oldsite-htdocs/voting/videos.html
7. Feldman, Halderman, Felten; Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine, Princeton University, September 13, 2006.
8. MacArthur, John R. "Problem #2/Parties You're Not Invited To." You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Pub., 2008. 44. Print.
9. "Conversation with Judy Alter." Telephone interview. 1 Aug. 2013.