When I was in school I learned that the difference between comedy and tragedy is that one of them ends in death and the other in marriage. (But I could never remember which is which, which may be why I have such a hard time holding onto girl friends.) Likewise, I can't really decide if our current e-voting follies are comic or tragic.
At the RSA conference earlier this month, a panel of security wonks who tested California's e-voting equipment declared the machines slightly more secure than a box of Jujubees.
The California audit examined systems from Diebold Elections Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems, ultimately permitting their use in 2008, but only under certain conditions. In testing, Wagner and his team found that they could introduce a computer virus to any of the three systems, which would then spread throughout the county and ultimately skew the vote count.
Anyone who's followed this story knows this is old news. Separate tests by Princeton prof Ed Felten and Finnish security expert Harri Hursti arrived at similar conclusions. (Here's a video of a Diebold AccuVote-TS machine being hacked by Felten and his crew.)
In fact, security wonk David Wagner says we're past the point where we can fix broken voting machines by election day, so he's urging states to audit the results for fraud. Only about a third of states do any auditing at all. So yesterday the US House of Representatives tried to pass a bill offering states money to fund audits and/or use paper ballots instead of machines if they chose to do so. But it failed to get the two thirds majority it needed for passage, largely because many House members were absent.
The White House and most Republicans opposed the bill, citing its potential cost. Per the Associated Press:
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. sponsor of the bill ... noted that many who voted against the bill because of the cost "supported spending almost $330 million in recent years to provide election assistance in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I would have hoped those who supported efforts to export democracy abroad would be equally committed to strengthening democracy here at home," he said.
Election fraud isn't limited to one party or one technology (see 1960 presidential elections, City of Chicago). But it's deeply troubling when one side says we can't afford to ensure free and fair elections or that voting machine manufacturers shouldn't be held accountable.
Cringester "X. Y.," who disagrees with me on most of these issues, says there are worse things than a return to paper and pencil:
It really comes down to one thing: when an item is touted as "secure," how secure is that item? Remember: if we still used paper and pencil, people would not see "projected winners" on television screens for a few days. The only real losers in such a situation are, in order, television networks, radio networks, and newspapers; the winners will be the voters. And the nation and the world will survive.
In other news: Hart InterCivic may be the new proud owner of Sequoia Voting Systems, which has been on the auction block since it was revealed the e-voting company was owned by a Venezuelan firm with ties to Hugo Chavez. According to Brad Friedman, proprietor of the Brad Blog and an absolute terrier on the topic of e-voting, Hart made a hostile bid which Sequoia had to match by 5 pm yesterday. I guess we'll find out later today what happened.
Meanwhile, Hart InterCivic is being sued for fraud and misrepresentation by William Singer, a former Hart technician who says the company lied about the accuracy and reliability of its machines. So that's comforting.
We all know that if there's a security vulnerability, someone will eventually exploit it. My prediction: The upcoming presidential election will indeed be hacked -- not by some partisan trying to cheat, but by a gray hat hacker seeking to prove the systems' vulnerability and/or just generally [DELETED] with all of us.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next president of the United States: Oprah Winfrey.