Political Intelligence

Votescam in the Electronic Age



A week before the midterm election, President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act. It provides $3.9 billion to the states over the next three years to upgrade local election equipment. A handful of election technology companies have positioned themselves to reap the bulk of the money from the legislation. Expect them to lobby hard in the coming year. The system they are pushing most aggressively across the country, also happens to be the most expensive. It’s called direct recording electronic or DRE. Typically, DREs involve computerized touch-screen voting machines.

DREs offer an opportunity to commit electoral fraud with an astounding efficiency only available in the computer age. The machines offer no real-time evidence of a vote beyond what appears on the screen. (Cartridges collect the voting data which then can be printed out after the election.) Even though most customers at ATMs demand an immediate receipt of their transaction, with DREs voters are not afforded the same measure of accountability when electing their civic leaders. The source codes to operate the machines are proprietary to the company that supplies them. And as any computer programmer knows, it would be a simple matter to add a line of code to switch votes or simply lose them.

The fears of cynics (and those who read history) aside, DRE technology has produced enough unintentional errors to make one wonder about the glitches that go undiscovered. Researchers from Caltech and MIT concluded that three percent of ballots that went through DRE machines were not counted in the 2000 presidential race. In Dallas County this past election, dozens of voters in a number of precincts complained during early voting that when they selected a Democratic candidate on the touch screen, it registered a Republican. Election officials blamed the problem on “badly calibrated voting machines.” Democrats unsuccessfully petitioned Republican District Judge Karen Johnson to order a court-supervised testing of the machines.

Dallas County’s voting machines are provided by Election Systems & Software. ES&S claims its systems have counted more than half of the U.S. national vote in each of the last four presidential and congressional elections. The company is privately held and doesn’t disclose all of its investors. A minority interest is owned by World Investments, which publishes the reactionary daily, the Omaha World Herald. The lack of transparency in both ownership and operation feeds suspicion among conspiracy theorists.

Company representatives insist that keeping the source code secret increases security by preventing tampering. And unlike most paper ballots or fill-in-the-oval optical scanners, DREs are accessible to those with disabilities. (Many DRE machines have audio capabilities.)

Yet after studying all alternatives, the MIT/Caltech team didn’t endorse DREs. “The results clearly set paper–hand counted or optically scanned–as the benchmark, the thing to beat,” said MIT’s Stephen Ansolabehere at a national conference of state legislators last year. It’s also cheaper. According to MIT researchers, a touch-screen system costs about $25 per voter but a precinct optical scanning system costs only $6 per voter.

Advocates believe legislators must reform the Help America Vote Act before it’s too late. They could call it the Safeguard Democracy Act. Provisions should include mandatory real-time paper ballots voters can see, source code review by qualified academics, independent testing before elections, full ownership disclosure of election companies, criminal background checks for company officials, and routine election audit to weed out error-prone operations.


Readers of The Texas Observer will not be surprised at the conclusions of a new ACLU report, “Too Far Off Task,” on the state’s 45 regional narcotics task forces. Written by Scott Henson, the report is the most comprehensive look at the task forces to date. It’s not a pretty picture.

Henson lists 17 task force scandals. Some of the highlights include the 46 indicted on the word of a lying narc in the Tulia case; Floresville, where a task force agent and three accomplices stole 70 pounds of cocaine from an evidence locker; Hearne, where a crooked confidential informant set up 28 people; and Austin, where a drug raid killed an innocent 19-year-old who was not a target of the operation.

Task forces have consistently engaged in racial profiling, disproportionately targeting low-income blacks. If anything, evidence indicates task force undercover operations encourage people to commit crimes they might not otherwise commit. Nor, contrary to popular belief are drug task forces self-supporting through asset forfeiture. The task forces are actually a drain on many local governments, the report found.

Henson makes the case that eliminating the task forces would be an opportunity for Republican legislators to “cut ineffective, costly scandal-ridden bureaucracy from the state budget.” Abolishing them, he estimates, would save the state $199 million this biennium, $372 million next biennium, and free up $60 million in grant money for more productive uses. As legislators prepare to axe social programs, the money for the task forces could actually be used to fill gaps in areas such as drug treatment, domestic violence, and even homeland security.