Third Time’s the Charm
By John D. Turner
31 Oct 2012

Electronic voting machines are ubiquitous across the country. I am not sure if manual machines are in use anywhere anymore. Touted as being “more accurate,” “foolproof,” and “simpler to use,” we are led to believe that these technological marvels are infallible and tamper proof. But are they?

This election cycle, we have multiple examples of voters pressing one selection and having a different candidate actually selected. It has happened in at least three states now, the latest being Ohio, where the presidential election is said to be so close that a few votes either way could decide the victor.

Funny, it always seems to be a vote cast for Romney that comes up Obama, and never vice versa. I am pretty certain that if it was happening the other way around we would have heard about it by now. But we haven’t; only Romney votes that come up Obama; first in North Carolina, and now in Kansas and in Ohio. Is it happening anywhere else? Who knows?

And who knows how many times it has actually happened. We are told these machines are foolproof. How many people actually go back over their ballot line by line to ensure that the votes recorded are actually who they intended to vote for?

The elections directors in both states seem supremely unconcerned about the issue; it’s just something that “happens” from time to time – and no one knows why. And of course, they never publicize the problem. I have never heard of it before – have you?

“It’s not a conspiracy it’s just a machine that needs to be corrected,” said Guilford County Board of Elections Director George Gilbert, of North Carolina.

Sophia Rogers, the director of the board of elections for Marion County, Ohio, was also not much concerned. She said that the machine “worked fine when she and others tried voting on it.” Of course, she didn’t say who she and the “others” actually voted for. She suggested that perhaps the issue may have been caused by “not hitting the button directly or tapping with more than one finger.” She stated that she was aware “the machine had to be operated a certain way.”

I wonder if the voters were aware of that.

Her solution was to contact the vendor and have the machine recalibrated. “I’m certain the equipment works properly,” she said. So I guess she must be some sort of technical expert on voting machines. I presume that she has done a full-blown test, has viewed the software and tested that as well to ensure no “glitches,” and is absolutely certain that there is no way to hack into the device. That sounds real nice that she is “certain.” Is she really certain, or does she just telling us that so we will go away?

Or does she really care? How did she vote? Perhaps she considers a vote cast for Mitt that actually goes to Obama to be OK in the grand scheme of things.

“It’s just a machine that needs to be corrected.” I feel so much better now! When it was “hanging chads” and ill-designed “butterfly ballots” in Florida, it was all some grand conspiracy to had the election to George Bush when it “rightfully” belonged to Al Gore. But now that we have “fixed” those problems with electronic “black boxes,” no one seems concerned that perhaps votes are being cast contrary to the wishes of those casting them.

There’s no way to go back and really see that all the votes cast were cast the way they were intended. All they exist as now are tallies in a database. Too bad, so sad - but hey, it’s easier, cheaper, and so efficient! Who really cares that you really have no way of knowing exactly what is going on inside that black box. You voted. Isn’t that really what is important here?

I have long been a proponent of a paper ballot; that is, the voting machine is hooked to a printer which prints out a paper ballot of how you voted, which is then placed in the ballot box. When it comes time to count the ballots, you scan them just like you used to do with the manual system. That way, there is a paper trail. That way, you have proof positive that you can hold in your hand showing the ballot you cast is the one you intended to cast. And the printer should eliminate any issues of “readability” that cropped up with the old fill in the oval with a pencil method. No need to look for extraneous marks on the paper to try and divine how the voter “intended” to vote.

But no, I am told. How archaic! Think of all the money we will save by going paperless! No printers, no toner, no paper. And the vote tallies just pop up on the screen, or are dumped on a cash register like piece of paper. So easy, so quick, so 21st century!

Except that, even if I visually examine the electronic ballot on the screen and verify that the selections are indeed the ones I chose, how do I really know that once I push the vote button that what I saw on the screen is really how the machine records my vote? I can’t and therein lies the rub. Which is why a paper trail is vital; so that a recount is of the paper ballots, and then we see if what we get matches what the machine told us in the first place. Without that piece, I have zero confidence in the system.

I am a software engineer by trade. I know how computer software works. Computers do exactly what you tell them to do. Computers don’t make “mistakes;” humans do.

Humans are also nefarious. In a day and age where the dead still get up on election day and cast their ballot, a day where voter ID is not only not required, but considered “discriminatory, “and a day where planes carrying absentee ballots for deployed military crash, ballots are “lost,” ballots are “found” (in round number lots no less), and all sorts of other shenanigans occur in our voting system, do you seriously think that our electronic voting systems are immune? I certainly don’t, particularly when the chances of getting caught tampering with one are so remote.

Someone pays a programmer to slip an extra routine in the software; one that throws every 100th vote for one candidate to the other. Hard to detect, particularly if the vote doesn’t show up on the screen, but is misdirected after the vote button is pressed.

Does the machine have any connectivity with the outside world other than the touch screen? Can you hook a USB device to it? Does it have Bluetooth or some other sort of wireless connectivity available? If so, then it is possible that it can be “hacked.” How could you change the programming to cause a vote for Romney to be cast as Obama? Change the size of the touch screen “box” that records a vote as a vote for Obama to encompass the “Romney” selection on the keypad, at the same time eliminating the “box” for Romney. Now, votes for Romney will accrue to Obama.

The “box” I am referring to is the area on the touch screen assigned to each candidate. The box is invisible; it defines the screen real estate whereby a touch is recorded and attributed to a particular candidate. It’s a simple piece of code.

Of course, it could be even simpler – just hack in and increment the counter for one candidate by an arbitrary number and decrease the counts for the other candidates by the sum total of the same amount. That way, the number of voters will “balance,” and there is no way it could ever be proven that the votes didn’t come in that way in the first place.

If this were some kind of random event, it would be bad enough. We need to have confidence in our voting system. But when it only occurs in one direction, my fraud radar goes on. Logically, it should be happening to both candidates if it is truly a random event. Random events don’t happen in just one direction. Something is going on here; what I am not entirely sure. But I do know one thing – I don’t like it, not one little bit.

You are being asked to have absolute confidence in the black box that is your friendly electronic voting machine, and the company that built it and the people who programmed it. What it says is gospel; it had better be – there is no way you can gainsay it.

I for one do not trust these machines, and articles like these only reinforce my distrust. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about it. I simply have to hope that despite any cheating that may happen, things will come out ok in the end. And, and has been stated before by others, hope is not a strategy.

Funny, isn’t it that both Ohio and North Carolina are, at least according to Real Clear Politics, currently tossup states where just a few votes per precinct could decide which way the state goes? Kansas is solidly Romney, but Ohio, is considered the big prize. According to most, you have to win Ohio if you are going to win the election.

Is someone pulling a fast one here? Nah, can’t be…just a “calibration issue”, I am sure. Move on folks! Nothing to see here…