Something's rotten in the state of Denmark

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

David Corn, preaching restraint

David Corn has a new piece in the Nation, titled "A Stolen Election?," glancing at the irregularities, and, rightly, calling for caution in assembling any evidence of irregularities.


Electronic voting that does not produce an auditable paper trail is worrisome--as is the possibility that the machines can be hacked. The proponents of these systems claim there are sufficient safeguards. But in this election there were numerous reports of e-voting gone bad. Votes cast for one candidate were registered for another. In Broward County, Florida, software subtracted votes rather than added them. In Franklin County, Ohio, an older electronic machine reported an extra 3,893 votes for Bush. Local election officials caught that error. But when I asked Peggy Howell, one of those officials, why the mistake occurred, she replied, "We really don't know." Were these errors statistically insignificant glitches that inevitably happen in any large system? "It gives us the uneasy feeling that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg," Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is part of the Election Protection Coalition, told Reuters. "What has most concerned scientists are problems that are not observable," David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, explained to the Associated Press. "The fact that we had a relatively smooth election...does not change at all the vulnerability these systems have to fraud or bugs." And the 2000 fiasco in Florida demonstrated that non-electronic voting can also have serious problems, which often disproportionately affect low-income counties.

But, Corn says:
But did something more foul than minor slip-ups and routine political chicanery occur? Those who say yes--at this point--are relying more on supposition than evidence. They cite the exit polls to claim the vote count was falsified to benefit Bush. The pollsters say they oversampled women, that their survey takers were not allowed to get close enough to the polls and that Kerry supporters may have been more willing to cooperate with the pollsters than Bush backers. Impossible, huffs pollster/consultant Dick Morris: "Exit polls are almost never wrong." But Morris argues that the faulty exit polls are not a sign the vote count was off but an indication that the pollsters deliberately produced pro-Kerry results "to try to chill the Bush turnout." (Talk about conspiracy theory.) The screwy exit polls do raise questions, but they are not proof of sabotage. And left-of-center accusers have promoted contradictory theories. Many suggest Diebold and other vendors put in the fix via the paperless touch-screen machines. But other critics--including progressive talk-show host and author Thom Hartmann--also point to a spreadsheet created by an activist named Kathy Dopp that shows what she considers anomalous pro-Bush results in Florida counties that used optical-scan voting, not electronic touch-screen voting.(The optical-scan machines were manufactured by Diebold and the other firms that produce the touch-screen machines.) But Walter Mebane, a Cornell professor, and colleagues at Harvard and Stanford examined this allegation of fraud and concluded that it is "baseless." They note that the counties in question are mostly in the conservative Florida Panhandle and "have trended strongly Republican over the past twelve years."

Except that's not right, as we've discussed here. While there were some conservative Panhandle counties that experienced an overwhelming pro-Bush arc, not all did. And similarly conservative counties like Lee did not experience a 100, 200, 400% increase in votes for Bush beyond party registration. I'd agree, though, that the "exit polls were wrong" should not be an important part of any collection of evidence of irregularities.

Corn goes on:
Clear away the rhetoric, and what's mainly left are the odd early exit polls (which did show Kerry's lead in Ohio and Florida declining as Election Day went on and which ended up with the current national Bush-Kerry spread), troubling instances of bad electronic voting, and curious--or possibly curious--trends in Florida. This may be the beginning of a case; it is not a case in itself. Investigative reporter Robert Parry observes, "Theoretically, at least, it is conceivable that sophisticated CIA-style computer hacking--known as 'cyber-warfare'--could have let George W. Bush's campaign transform a three-percentage-point defeat, as measured by exit polls, into an official victory of about the same margin. Whether such a scheme is feasible, however, is another matter, since it would require penetration of hundreds of local computer systems across the country, presumably from a single remote location. The known CIA successes in cyber-war have come from targeting a specific bank account or from shutting down an adversary's computer system, not from altering data simultaneously in a large number of computers."

Penetration of hundreds of local computer systems, given those most of the computers which collect the data are run on simple Microsoft Windows software, certainly isn't impossible. But there's no evidence yet that anything like this was done; Corn, I believe, is just asserting the possibility that it could have been done, not any plausibility that it was.

Corn ends with this: "The public does deserve any information that would allow it to evaluate vote-counting. Beyond that, extensive election reform is necessary. Electronic voting ought to produce a paper trail that can be examined. There should be national standards for voting systems and for verifying vote tallies. And vote counters should be nonpartisan public servants, not secretive corporations or party hacks. The system ought to be so solid that no one would have cause even to wonder whether an election has been stolen."

I think that's exactly right. The question is, why and how did Secretaries of State in Ohio and Florida allow for systems that did not allow a paper trail? Electronic voting machines in other countries produce a paper ballot that one then submits -- the machine produces a mark on the paper that no one can deny, thus erasing hanging chad possibilities, but also leaving a paper trail that accomodates recounts and easy ability to dissect or examine election returns. We didn't have that here. We're living in a country that gave the world Microsoft, Apple, Oracle (uh, sorry about that, world), and tons and tons of technological know-how, yet we didn't tap that to provide any semblance of security for the networks on which our presidential vote was tabulated and contained? That's insane.

There's a reason that people are concerned and worried about these election results, folks, and it's not just because they're unhappy with the outcome. It's because a lot of funny business happened with Katharine Harris et al in Florida in 2000. It's because this year, one party was guilty of every dirty trick from telling West Virginians the Democrats would ban the bible (printed at the expense of the RNC, no less) to trying to tell black people in various cities that the election was being held the next week, to strangely shutting down most government offices in Ohio on Election Day after telling people that they could turn in their absentee ballots on that very day. And it's because there are strange irregularities in Ohio and Florida that haven't been quite explained yet.

Corn is right. This may be the beginning of a case. It's not a case in itself. (John Ashcroft's replacement can hold off on appointing any special prosecutors just yet!) But a beginning should at least give us reason to dig further and deeper for explanations.