Published Tuesday, November 7, 2006, in National Review Online.

Electric Politics: Democrats are spreading fear over new computerized voting machines.

John R. Lott Jr. & Bradley A. Smith

We have seen this before. In the 2004 elections, Democrats screamed that electronic voting machines in Ohio had been used to steal the election from Kerry. This weekend Nancy Pelosi claimed that Democrats will take control of the House as long as there is "an honest [vote] count."

Never mind that Democrats were almost uniformly in favor of forcing state and federal governments to spend billions of dollars replacing punch-card machines with touch-screen electronic voting machines after the 2000 election. Never mind that claims of a stolen election in 2004 were based on exit polls that even the presiding pollsters acknowledged were fatally flawed. Pelosi has now warned that if Democrats lose this vote, it will be because electronic voting machines were used to steal the election.

Election fraud is an important issue. But instead of improving the election process, Democrats’ regular claims of fraud may actually poison the political debate for years to come. A recent AP poll found that only 30 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Democrats claim that they are confident that their votes will be counted. For all voters, the number is only 60 percent.

Lawsuits in Arizona, California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have sought to decertify the machines’ use, though the suits have met with little success. Fears involve everything from stories of viruses able to alter voting results to cases of computer failure: surely enough to scare most people.

In September, three Democratic U.S. senators—Barbara Boxer, Chris Dodd, and Russ Feingold—went so far as to announce emergency legislation to reimburse states for printing paper ballots in case anything goes wrong with electronic voting machines. The director of election reform for the left-wing Common Cause wants to mandate that paper ballots be provided in all federal elections. It seems to be forgotten that one reason for the move to electronic machines was that paper ballots were open to fraud.

The scary stories about electronic voting have one major problem: They are based on an inaccurate understanding of how the electronic systems work. First, none of the systems is hooked up to the Internet. The electronic voting machines are stand-alone units. Hacking them would be like trying to hack into your computer while it wasn’t hooked up to the Internet: impossible.

When computer scientists warn of possible tampering with voting machines, they are not talking about hacking but about someone physically breaking open the lock on each individual machine and reprogramming it. But even if those breaking into the machines could overcome the tamper-proof seals without being noticed, going through one computer at a time hardly seems like the way to steal most elections.

What about the nightmare scenario that a Republican manufacturer will secretly program the computers in advance to alter the election? Suppose such a tampering scheme were to occur: It would easily be revealed as the precinct election workers checked the machines for accuracy with sample votes both before and after the election.

Some machines are even randomly chosen to test during the day just in case their programs are set to only miscount votes during voting hours. If the programming were to switch, say, one out of every 10 votes, it would show up when sample votes were fed into the machines.

The Center for Information Technology Policy released a report in September that was given extensive coverage in the New York Times and caused concern when it claimed that hackers could tamper with electronic voting machines by installing a virus. The problem is that, during the experiment, all the safeguards just discussed were eliminated. The test hackers were given complete and unfettered access to the machines so that they could, for example, physically replace the machines’ memory card. In real life, getting such access to machines, overcoming the security seals, and rigging enough machines to make a difference would be only the beginning of a hacker’s problems. No one explains why this tampering would not be detected during all the machine checks for accuracy.

A few electronic voting machines, along with even more optical scans, offer election officials the option to collect vote counts using encrypted modems in addition to removable read-only memory. Michael Wertheimer, a security expert commissioned by the state of Maryland to evaluate electronic voting security, reportedly ‘broke into the computer at the state Board of Elections’ during a test and ‘completely’ changed the election results.

Yet the tampering wasn’t under real-world conditions. It used an old system and really didn’t change the results. To attempt a similar feat, a hacker would have to know what telephone number to call, bypass the modem encryption, and then determine the password within a very narrow time frame. And even if all those things went wrong, the original data in the voting machines would still not be compromised, and an accurate recount would remain possible.

Interestingly, no politicians so far have raised tampering same concerns about optical scans—even though this threat involves hacking a central computer, not electronic voting machines.

Paper ballots add nothing except unnecessary costs. Possible computer crashes or corrupted data are handled by multiple redundant memory systems, some of which cannot be altered but are ‘read only.’ These memories are constantly checked for any differences. Most people have enough computer experience to know that once you burn information into a CD you can’t alter it. In the 20-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country there has never been a verified case of tampering.

The irony is that the politicians who complained the loudest about how punch-card machines and hanging chads in Florida disenfranched voters are now complaining the loudest about what they earlier insisted was the ‘cure.’ It is hard to believe that Democratic leaders really personally believe these conspiracy stories. But, unfortunately, surveys indicate that all too many people do—and the damage done to political discourse may be very long lasting.

John R. Lott Jr., the dean's visiting professor at SUNY-Binghamton, served as the statistical expert for the minority report produced by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Florida 2000 election and for the state of Ohio in 2004 on voting machines. Bradley A. Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, is a law professor at Capital University Law School and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.


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