Article published Friday, April 30, 2004, at San Diego Tribune.

Voting machine conspiracy theories

By John R. Lott Jr.

Electronic voting machines were billed as the wave of the future just months ago. But now, by today, California's Secretary of State Kevin Shelley will have to decide whether to ban them. Even if he doesn't, the Legislature is threatening to do so. Supposedly, electronic machines – being installed across the country – will allow all sorts of fraud.

This month Democrats on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights joined the chorus against electronic voting machines claiming: "We're ending up in '04 with the very same problems and issues that were there before."

Senators Hillary Clinton and Bob Graham, as well as Congressmen Rush Holt and Tom Davis recently introduced legislation to help prevent any fraud by requiring that electronic machines have paper-recording devices. Florida Congressman Robert Wexler has even brought a lawsuit because he worries that the Bush brothers will steal the election again, this time using electronic machines.

State and federal governments are spending billions of dollars to replace punch card machines with electronic machines. Yet, instead of improving the election process, the claims of fraud may poison the political debate for years to come.

Bill Maher's jokes may be funny: "Some 13-year-old hacker in Finland is going to hand the presidency to (singer) Kylie Minogue!" And, more seriously, Sen. Clinton warns Democrats how "hacking" can easily "skew our elections" and points out that a Republican is the second largest manufacturer of electronic voting machines.

While scary, the stories have one major problem: none of the systems is hooked up to the Internet. The electronic voting machines are stand-alone units. It would be like someone trying to hack into your computer while it wasn't hooked up to the Internet. Impossible.

After the election, most electronic voting machines transfer the election results to a compact disk or some other "read only" format. These CDs are then taken to a central location where they are read into a computer. 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.

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. Even if those breaking into the machines 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 that such a tampering scheme were to occur. Such tampering would easily be revealed as the precinct election workers check 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 were set to only miscount votes during voting hours. If the programming switches, say, one out of every 10 votes, it would show up when sample votes are fed into the machines.

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, used an old system and really didn't change the results. Not only does a hacker have to know what telephone number to call, bypass the modem encryption and determine the password within a very narrow time frame, but two sets of calls reportedly from the same precinct would raise a red flag. Even if all those things go wrong, the original data in the voting machines would not be compromised, and it would still be possible to conduct an accurate recount.

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

Paper ballots add nothing, except generating unnecessary costs. Possible computer crashes or corrupted data are taken care of by multiple redundant memory systems, some of which cannot be altered but are "read only." These memories are constantly checked for any differences.

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." Conspiracy theories may rally the political faithful but at the risk of even greater hostility and mistrust among voters.

? Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, served as the statistical expert for the minority report produced by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Florida 2000 election.

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