Rise of the machines

Machines get a bad rap. In popular fiction—Terminator, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey—they’re always turning against us, rising up with cold precision to obliterate humanity. In the real world we personify gadgets just so we can heap blame on them—who among us hasn’t yelled at a frozen computer as though it were a petulant child rather than a box of wires and silicon capable of doing only what we program it to do?

Given this pervasive cultural paranoia, it’s ironic that electronic voting machines have enjoyed pretty much a free pass. Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) devices have grown steadily in popularity since they arrived on the electoral scene in the mid-‘90s, despite concerns raised by some about reliability and the potential for tampering. In 1996, less than 8 percent of U.S. voters used a DRE system; in 2004 that figure had ballooned to nearly 30 percent. DREs have landed on Maui, as anyone who’s recently voted can attest. For the September 20 primary, machines provided by Hart InterCivic did the tabulating; they’ll do so again on November 4.

A bit of background on Hart: According to the details of a recently unsealed lawsuit, the Texas-based company was accused by a whistleblower of lying to government officials about the security of its machines to get a piece of the $4 billion in funds freed up by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. The company has dismissed the accusations as the ravings of a disgruntled employee and the suit has since been dropped on a technicality related to lawyers’ fees.

Hart initially entered into a long-term contract with Hawaii worth over $40 million, but a state official ruled the deal must be re-bid next year after it was revealed that a rival outfit made a much lower offer. 

Either way, it looks like DREs are here to stay.

At least one group of Maui voters isn’t taking all this lying down. They’ve filed suit, seeking to clarify the rules governing electronic voting and to ensure transparency and accuracy. A judge blocked their initial effort to prevent results from being transmitted over the phones lines, saying it was too close to the election to step in. But they’re pushing ahead in hopes that future elections won’t be clouded by technological doubt.

We spoke with attorney Lance Collins, who’s representing the five voters, about the case:

What’s the central concern behind this lawsuit?

When all the votes are compiled, there’s no printout on Maui before the results get sent to Honolulu. And they’re sent to Honolulu through the telephone lines. Additionally, absentee ballots are never audited. They’re put into a sealed container and unless you can prove with hard evidence that there has been election fraud and that fraud would have changed the results, the Supreme Court’s case law prohibits [a recount]. So if the counts are sent to Honolulu and nobody gets to see a printout or any sort of verification, there’s a concern that it could be subject to tampering. [In 2006], it turns out that the telephone line used to transmit the results was active for 45 minutes. Given the amount of data that was being sent, even if you’re operating at slowest possible modem speed, it does not take 45 minutes to send. Of course there’s lots of explanations, and who knows? In 45 minutes all sorts of things can happen. The problem is that it’s all shrouded in secrecy. The whole point in having election observers is to ensure there’s no tampering. But here, the most critical part of the process isn’t subject to observation.

In the end, what do you hope to accomplish?

There are two arguments. First, in order to use Direct Recording Electronics, they have to promulgate rules, which they haven’t done. They even have a section that says “DREs” and it says “reserved,” which means at some point they were intending to make rules but never did. If you look at the rules for all the other voting systems, they tell you what’s an appropriate marking, how it all works. Touching screens on DREs might seem to be self-evident, just like filling in a bubble, but it’s not necessarily. That’s why you need rules. Then there’s the use of the telephone lines. My clients’ position—and I think a clear reading of the law—is that telephone lines and the Internet are not permitted [to transmit results]. Ballot counting can only be done by transporting ballots, and transporting is different than transmitting.

Is the fear more that the results will be inadvertently inaccurate, or that there will be intentional tampering?

There’s a range of perspectives among my clients. On one end we have people who are concerned that the opportunity is there and there’s absolutely no way to oversee it or prevent it. On the other end are people who do believe there’s some kind of surreptitious, clandestine activity afoot and it’s very possible there are people in office who don’t represent the will of the majority.

Are electronic voting machines inherently bad?

Technology has historically been used in elections to ensure integrity and voter security. There’s nothing wrong with technology, as long as standards are met. But you don’t experiment with elections; you have to be certain that the technology works before you implement it. There’s no margin for error. MTW