The Rise Of The Machines

From the left corner of the room, fears of an electronic-voting disaster

In the dank back room of an East Village bar, Teresa Hommel, assisted by a laptop and projector, fervently warned a gathering of Democrats last week that the Republican Party could steal the November election. Then she demonstrated how.

Using a computer simulation she herself programmed, called the "Fraudulent Voting Machine," Hommel tried to show how the software in electronic voting machines, which will be used by as many as a third of American voters in the November election, could be manipulated to produce phony results.

The program, which is available on Hommel's website, wheresthepaper.org, is simple enough: A user chooses, and then verifies, a vote either for candidate John Doe or candidate Mary Smith. No matter how the user votes, Mary Smith always wins.

"Anything in a computer can be changed," said Hommel, who has worked with computers for over 30 years. She's devoted the past year solely to the voting issue. She talks about voter-verified paper audits of the new machines—a primary demand of many advocates—with an enthusiasm that borders on zeal. "The [electronic machines] are being sold as a panacea, on the basis that you can trust them," she said. "The people selling them are lying."

There are a number of reasons why the new machines, Direct Recording Electronic Voting Systems (known as DREs), are viewed so suspiciously, by so many. There is the legacy of the contested Florida results during the 2000 presidential election, and the comments of Wally O'Dell, the CEO of Diebold Inc., a manufacturer of DREs. In a fundraising letter he sent to Ohio Republicans last August, O'Dell wrote that he was committed "to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

But as concern with the security of the upcoming election grows, the window in which changes can be made is slamming shut. Aides to several members of Congress admitted that legislation that would require the electronic machines to produce a paper audit trail will probably go nowhere during the current session. This means that a security regimen will be a voluntary, unfunded project, undertaken by state election officials rather than mandated by the federal government.

Three weeks ago, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, working with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, released a set of recommendations they hope federal election watchdogs will implement before November. The measures include the use of independent security experts, training programs for election officials, and public monitoring of the voting process. But the recommendations do not call for a paper audit trail.

"You have to remember what the recommendations were intended for," said Aviel Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of a now famous study that is critical of some of the DRE technology. "They're for those precincts that ignore the advice [to require paper audits] and use the machines anyway." Rubin has endorsed the Brennan Center's recommendations, but remains skeptical of the DREs, saying, "The Diebold system is not like any commercial system I've ever seen. It's much worse."

But Diebold spokesperson David Bear insisted, "Touch-screen voting is safe, secure, and accurate. Mr. Rubin tested his theories on an incomplete and outdated code. I disagree that there have been problems with the technology. There haven't been factual errors associated with touch screens."

After her presentation downtown, Teresa Hommel sat for tea at a nearby bakery, and said that she holds the election machines to the standard of banking systems or computers involved in stock trades. In those applications, she said, multiple audits are the rule.

Even some of the legislation currently stalled in Congress may be of no help. Hommel is especially disappointed by a bill co-sponsored by Senator Clinton intended to exempt New York's lever-operated voting machines from producing a paper trail but that could provide a loophole for other machines as well. (An aide to Clinton refuted the claim, saying that she and many of the activists were "on the same page.")

"People are so disengaged," said Hommel. "The country is falling apart, and this issue is falling apart too."

 
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