September 2012


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Hacking the vote

By Ronald Bleier


It wasn't until some time after the passage of the Help America Vote Act in October 2002 that I was alerted to widespread election fraud, often by means of manipulation of the electronic vote count. If memory serves it was an article by Thom Hartmann reprinted in the summer of 2003 in the Progressive Populist, which alarmingly warned that, due to the ease of hacking computerized voting machines, the electoral process was liable to subversion and that our democracy was at risk

The first sentence of Hartmann's article, "The Theft of Your Vote Is Just a Chip Away," encapsulates the theme in a question: "Are computerized voting machines a wide-open back door to massive voting fraud? 1 The article emphasized that vote totals on these machines were unreliable because they could easily be gamed. Paper trails to verify the computer vote count were not available or simply mirrored the electronic count. Moreover , all of the companies supplying the voting machines apparently had ties to the Republican Party and thus had obvious partisan interests. 3

Later I learned that the new voting systems also made possible the hacking of central tabulating machines, so that region-wide and statewide results could be changed, again with no provisions for oversight or accountability. Another distressing development was the decline, especially in the mainstream media, of the acceptability of exit polls as a check on the reported vote. This devolutionary trend gained considerably after the 2004 election, when exit polls showed Kerry winning in several critical states including Florida and Ohio. 2 Since the official results showed Bush not Kerry winning, exit polls had to be downplayed, ignored or eliminated, at least from mainstream media notice.

Two remarkable anomalies

Two remarkable anomalies Among a number of anomalies, Hartmann cited two remarkable examples of Republican wins in Senate races. These stuck in my mind as indicative of the threat that the new computerized voting regime represented. Perhaps the most worrisome thing overall was that, no matter how clear to the general public that the tallies were manipulated and results flipped, there was no mechanism for accountability and no visible political leadership able or willing to ensure that the decisions of the electorate would prevail. 1

One of the examples Hartmann cited was Republican Chuck Hagel's 1996 "stunning upset" win in the Senate race over popular former Nebraska governor Ben Nelson. In this first run for elective office, Hagel received 56% of the vote, "winning virtually all demographic groups including many black precincts that had always voted Democratic in previous elections and becoming the first Republican in twenty-four years to win a Senate seat in Nebraska." (Wikipedia). According to Neil Erickson, Nebraska's deputy secretary of state, 85% of the Nebraska vote was counted by computer voting machines manufactured by ES&S (then called American Information Systems) chaired by Chuck Hagel until he resigned in March 1995, two weeks before he launched his Senate campaign. 3

Years later it was found that Hagel neglected to disclose that, even after he stepped down as chairman of AIS, he held investments of between $1 and $5 million in the McCarthy Group, which owns about 25% of ES&S according to Hagel's chief of staff Lou Ann Lineham. 4

The numbers in Hagel's successful re-election victory in 2002 over his Democratic opponent Charlie Matulka were even more remarkable - perhaps too remarkable to actually be credible. The official tally landed him with 82.7% of the vote. One could be forgiven for wondering whether such an outsized and unprecedented result was actually intended by the Hagel team or whether it wasn't the result of a technical blunder made by overzealous or simply sloppy aides. In any event, despite Matulka's loud protests there seemed to be no means of achieving a recount or enforcing any accountability.

A second notable example mentioned in the Hartmann article was the 2002 Georgia Senate race between Republican Saxby Chambliss and decorated Vietnam War veteran, Democrat Max Cleland. In 2002 Georgia was one of the first states to use only electronic voting machines statewide. Diebold Elections Systems provided virtually all of the Georgia voting machines. In the final pre-election poll Cleland led by five points and most observers expected him to win re-election handily.

In 2002 Chris Hood, a consultant for Diebold (now known as Elections Solutions) was on the ground helping prepare for the election. The votes cast on Diebold machines were stored on unprotected memory cards, which could easily be altered. These memory cards carried not only vote data, but they also carried programs and updates known as patches. As one of his responsibilities, Chris Hood was asked to place a software patch on machines in certain counties before the election. According to Hood, after he and his colleagues arrived at the warehouse, Bob Yerosovitch, the president of Diebold arrived with a stack of memory cards and announced that we needed to patch the machines because the clock wasn't working properly. He also said that the State wasn't to know about this.

When the actual votes were counted, the Republican candidate, Saxby Chambliss, won by seven percentage points, a 12-point reversal, in a state that for the first time had deployed 100% Diebold touch screen electronic equipment. 5

A confusing interview

In the succeeding months and years, as more and more information regarding vote count manipulation and irregularities accumulated, I began to formulate a theory about a scene from the evening of the Bush-Gore election of 2000, which I later concluded was more than a minor footnote to the main event.

On the evening of November 7, 2000, shortly after some of the networks announced that Florida and the presidency had been won by Democrat Al Gore, the TV cameras were invited to the Bush hotel suite in Florida, where about a dozen family members were gathered to watch the election results. The atmosphere in the room, I recall, was calm, if not actually upbeat. The spokesperson - was it George W. Bush himself? -- said that despite the TV network predictions, the family wasn't worried. He maintained that they had received information suggesting that the margin of victory was much narrower than current reports indicated, and the final result was far from clear.

In the end I came to the conclusion that Al Gore probably won Florida by a considerable margin, perhaps tens of thousands of votes, despite the presence of Ralph Nader on the ballot, and despite Governor Jeb Bush's voter suppression tactics, including purging many thousands of likely Democratic voters from the rolls, etc. Why was the Bush family so confident that evening? What were their sources of information? I theorized that the Bush people controlled key local and central tabulating machines and they were in position to change electronic totals at will.

In that case, why did they allow such a close result? I speculated that perhaps because of relative inexperience, Republican operatives allowed the numbers to fall in such a way as to produce a virtual tie, instead of a clear margin of victory.

If that was their mistake, they made sure not to allow such an eventuality again. In the 2004 election, not only did they produce a sufficient victory margin in Florida, but they went over the top and gave Bush a winning margin of more than three million votes nationally, seemingly embarrassed that they had overlooked this detail in 2000.

My theory as to the underlying meaning of the Bush 2000 election night interview was spurred, I later realized, by some of the examples in Hartmann's 2003 article. One of the saddest of such examples that Hartmann cited was the Alabama governor's race in 2002, which many believed was stolen from incumbent Democrat Don Siegelman. His vote total in Baldwin County was originally given as 19,070, which was sufficient for a narrow victory. Overnight, however, it was "discovered" that a "glitch in the software" had produced an error, and that Siegelman's Baldwin County total was reduced to only 12, 736. Although Siegelman not unreasonably "claimed results were changed after poll watchers left" there was, apparently, no politically viable means to follow up on his claim. He lost the race and the Governor's mansion to his Republican challenger by 2,752 votes.

An even more striking example from the Florida 2000 presidential contest may well illuminate some of the means by which vote totals were manipulated electronically and the election result flipped.

As an anonymous American official explained to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, The most famous example of election flipping occurred in the hotly contested 2000 presidential election in Florida when the tabulation system for Diebold's optical-scan system subtracted votes from Al Gore's total. While hanging chads distracted the nation, a few people noticed that in a Volusia County precinct where only 412 people voted, a Diebold system actually deleted votes for Gore, giving him minus 16,022 votes. Bush received 2,813 votes. Some news media had already called the win (PDF, see page 20) for Bush when someone noticed the numbers.

Diebold spokesman David Bear said the problem wasn't the machine but the result of someone uploading a second, faulty memory card to the county server after workers had already uploaded the real precinct results from another card.

"This error was immediately detected through normal auditing procedures, and the votes were re-tabulated," Bear wrote in an e-mail. 6

Could one be forgiven for imagining any number of other similar anomalies - some perhaps more deftly managed -- that escaped notice? Only a few of these together could have turned the election. Many such examples could have obscured a relatively large victory for Al Gore and the Democrats, and in the end changed history. Extraordinary executive power was settled on an administration whose agenda, which up until that time, turned out to be arguably the most destructive in United States history.

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1AlterNet, July 30, 2003, story link arrow

2Rick Holmes, "Hacking the Vote," MetroWest Daily News (Mass.), June 17, 2012, (h/t MCM) http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/editorspick_mobile/x1222856667/Holmes-Hacking-the-vote#ixzz1yGjVkOCw arrow

3Kim Zetter , "How E-Voting Threatens Democracy," Wired Magazine, March 29, 2004. http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2004/03/62790?currentPage=2 arrow

4Ibid. arrow

5 These three paragraphs are a summary when they are not an exact transcription of a two-minute video on youtube: "Saxby Chambliss Max Cleland 2002." arrow

6Kim Zetter, note 3 above. arrow


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