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Thirteen Election Integrity Experts: E-Voting Problems and How to Stop Them

Thirteen election integrity experts and activists discuss the e-voting challenges and solutions for 2008.

"Where nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…"

So went the tagline for "Westworld," the chilling 1973 thriller about a resort where the androids go off the rails. Fiction? Hardly. In 2008, we have our own version of an electronic frontier fraught with machine failure. It's called the U.S. electoral system, a decentralized mess where often partisan local officials manage the voter registration rolls and have the power to purchase any voting system they please, often with no real oversight or meaningful security testing procedures.

We assembled a panel of leading election integrity (EI) experts and asked their advice on myriad aspects of the e-voting problem. Their recommendations are wide-ranging and should hopefully serve as a wake-up call, since candidates' political futures, not to mention the future of the U.S. and the entire planet, could be decided on error-prone and worse, easily tamperable electronic voting systems.

The question put to each of the experts was, "How can candidates best protect themselves from potential electronic voting problems and manipulation?"

Bev Harris, Black Box

There's not a lot they can do, but the number one thing is they should take the time to reconcile the numbers. There are various things that should add up with each other. We have found that about 70% of the time the records don't add up correctly. Those are the checks and balances that are supposed to protect the vote. Too often, they're going to find that they don't check or balance. But either way, they should check, because that's something that, as a candidate, it's doable. You can see that the number of people who checked in to vote is not less than the number of votes, for example. Or you sometimes see more votes show up than there are people in the county. And ensure that the results in the polling place matches the results that got reported.

With the scanned ballots (paper ballots which are counted by an optical scan machine, as opposed to a DRE or touch-screen machine) there is an additional reconciliation item. Most places that are running a tight ship, the poll workers are supposed to sign off on how many ballots they got and then sign off on how many got used, how many got spoiled, and how many they have left over. That's a really important thing to check on, because that's where the problems can come in. There's a few places where they audit a certain number of them, and if you get extra blank ballots unaccounted for floating around, they can make anything match.

Brad Friedman, The Brad Blog

The first thing they (candidates) need to do is go to and put themselves on the record loud and clear that they are not going to concede an election until every vote is counted and counted accurately and all election challenges are adequately resolved. Doing that sends a signal that they are not going to tolerate it, and they are going to do forensic audits to make sure everything was recorded accurately. And for the bad guys who are going to try to get away with it, it will put them on notice that we're watching this time.

They other thing they should do is educate themselves about their electoral system. I'm constantly stunned by how little candidates seem to know about the electoral system that will be used to elect or defeat them. I heard Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid on the air the other day say that they were lucky in the state of Nevada because they have paper trails on their system -- never mind the fact that those paper trails, along with those touch screen machines they use in Nevada, are hackable. It's a touch screen with a paper trail, which is as verifiable as a touch screen without a paper trail, which is to say not verifiable at all. The fact that the Democratic Senate Majority Leader doesn't understand that is stunning.

In many cases, candidates have standing that regular voters don't have. They can ask for recounts. They can ask for spot checks. They can randomly choose a precinct to be recounted by hand in most states. And again, they should announce their intention before the election to do exactly that, so the bad guys will be on notice that you can try to game the system, but there's a very good chance that you're going to get caught.

An optically scanned paper ballot without any form of verification is virtually worthless. We need to actually start counting some of these paper ballots that we fought so hard to get.

Clint Curtis, programmer/whistleblower

If the state has paper ballots but no audit procedure, as in Florida, the candidate should perform a sample audit by using ballot inspection after the election. After-election audits do not carry the weight of real audits, but it is all we are left with at Florida. I would suggest a 10 percent audit of all precincts, randomly drawn. If election officials are aware that the audit is coming, then they are more likely to be careful in making sure that their numbers are correct, at least in the items that they can control.

On DREs, there is no way to do it. After-election canvassing is expensive and difficult, and the results were ignored by both the press and the political system. (Curtis is referring to his failed 2006 Congressional bid in Florida's 24th district. Curtis and team went door to door collecting signed affidavits from voters as to how they voted -- which Curtis alleges were drastically off from the official results. His election challenge was dismissed by the Democratic-led House Administration Committee who never even reviewed the evidence.)

David Earnhardt, filmmaker, "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections"

If they are in districts that have opt-scan voting, they should demand random audits of at least 5 percent. If they have paperless touch-screen voting, they should do exit poll-style audits. Chain of custody of paper ballots needs to be completely secure.

Candidates need to speak out on this issue -- both to voters and the media. They need to make this issue -- the proper counting of all votes -- a part of their platform.

Simon Ardizzone, filmmaker, "Hacking Democracy"

You can't protect candidates from vote manipulation. Thanks to the mighty mess that is the U.S. election system, there is no prophylactic. However, you can encourage candidates to behave rationally when it happens, and you can encourage them to play ball with election reform groups.

No one can ensure that these machines count accurately, short of a full hand recount. However, I say this: video the close of the polls! The printout of the optical scanners is the forensic evidence of the vote that is least likely to be compromised. This is particularly true given the recent product advisory from Premier Election Systems (formerly Diebold Election Systems) admitting that their memory cards lose votes during uploads to GEMS central tabulators.

So every candidate must make sure that the precinct results match the final results, and that means an independent record of the poll tapes printed out on the night and signed by the precinct staff, not the re-printed ones that often turn up during recounts!

Video records are cheap, easy to do, and provide one other very interesting source of information. If certain types of hack have been carried out, particularly if pre-programmed results are re-written from hidden files on the memory cards to the vote counters themselves, then that takes time. Video works at 1/30th of a second and so it may provide evidence if there is a clear disparity between the time it takes from the ender card going through the scanner, through to the time when the printer starts to record the results. It's a long shot, but this could be important evidence. Observers should post these videos on You Tube, where citizens can then look at all the results from all the precincts in their county. And then count them themselves.

David Jefferson, Livermore National Laboratories

The fact is that candidates are not in much of a position to do anything other than ask for recounts or sue. Anything they may try to do is completely undercut because it always appears self-serving and partisan, or will at least be painted that way. Candidates are victims of bad voting systems like the rest of us.

David Swanson,,

They can raise the issue in the media and make it part of their campaigns in a few ways. First, they can encourage election day volunteers, observers, videographers, and exit pollsters, organizing efforts directly or assisting organizations not affiliated with any campaign, including encouraging the media to produce and release unadjusted exit poll results. They can plan to spend the day themselves setting an example as an observer. Second, they can make the issue of honest and verifiable elections part of their platform for policy changes. Ideally, they would support working toward changes in regulations, laws, and the Constitution to establish an individual Constitutional right to vote and to have all votes publicly and locally counted in a manner that can be repeated and verified if questioned, and a ban on private companies overseeing any vote counting. Third, they can support ongoing efforts to investigate past questionable elections anywhere in the country.

Where possible, request audits and recounts. Announce ahead of time that you will do so as a matter of principle. Observe. Videotape.

Don Siegelman, former Governor, Alabama

There is no way [to protect against election manipulation]. Pray, and make sure your candidate wins by more votes than they can steal. The only way to ensure that vote tallies of paper ballots are counted correctly is to hand-count them with witnesses present.

We must lobby Congress for paper ballots and hand-counting of votes.

Ellen Thiesen, Co-Director,

Candidates should encourage voters to vote on paper, on election day at the polls if at all possible; and to observe the subsequent handling and counting of the ballots to the extent allowed by law.

To ensure the greatest potential for accuracy of scanners, the machines should undergo a rigorous pre-election testing. (See John Washburn's guidelines here.) Immediately after the election, as many ballots as the law allows should be hand-counted; any discrepancies between the machine and hand tallies must be thoroughly investigated.

Candidates should not concede until they are convinced they lost fairly; otherwise, they do a disservice to their supporters and to democracy.

Dr. Robert Fitrakis, Author, Attorney, Editor of

Candidates can urge their supporters to vote absentee, by mail, or if the option is available at the polls, on paper ballots. Candidates should take advantage of state laws that allow election observers into the board of elections. Candidates can also do pre- and post-election public records requests to see who has serviced or interacted with the voting machines.

The best method would be to count by hand the ballots or in a scanning machine at the precinct level and post the vote totals at the precinct level. The central tabulator should be used as an audit only, comparing numbers from the counties to the specific precinct numbers.

The best thing a candidate can do is to demand full transparency and insist that private, partisan, for-profit entities be removed from the election process.

Holly Jacobson, Director & Co-Founder, Voter

Support the use of optical scans. The problem is that unless machines are impounded and security experts allowed to look at the source code in an in-depth way, it's hard to detect electronic voting manipulation.

For electronic voting problems, we need paper ballot backups that are not counted as provisional ballots. Electronic voting machines break down and cause disenfranchisement, because long lines form and people don't get the chance to vote.

We also need robust audits selected in random precincts by each party. I have a 10 percent audit solution.

I don't think that people think [nothing can go wrong] anymore. I think people don't know what to do about it.

Ion Sancho, Supervisor of Elections, Leon County, FL

If I were running, knowing what I know nowadays, I'd want to get a copy of the election official and security procedures to ensure that the chain of custody of the ballots is maintained, and that there's oversight from when the ballots are received by the elections office to when they're distributed to the precincts, and the process of collecting those ballots back again. Understanding what the chain of custody is for all ballots is pretty important and tends to be overlooked. It doesn't make any difference what kind of fabulous machine you use if you can't guarantee that the ballots that they count are the correct ballots.

It boggles my mind how many election officials don't have a clue what chain of custody means. For some it's, "Well, people had it." That's not good enough. Chain of custody is number one.

Find out what kind of audit laws are available in the jurisdiction. Florida has a terrible election audit. If I was running, short of my race being selected as the one for the random audit, then you have no confidence. The audit simply does not represent enough ballots of a precinct to give you any kind of confidence level. Find out what kind of audits may be done in that jurisdiction.

I do know of a case here in North Florida where a candidate contacted the election officials and arranged for a manual recount after the election, (and that recount was) not sanctioned by the state.

When a recount is invoked, I have to follow the state procedures for a recount. However, if there's no recount, I actually have more authority to do a full-blown recount. If the issue is to confirm whether it [the vote count] is valid or not, then I don't really need official results. That's if you can work with your election official. An election official may have the authority, and to ease your mind they may do an audit or a recount. Look at the applicability of audits and how robust they are. I would want to know what kind of audits can I get for my race, in my jurisdiction.

John Bonifaz, Constitutional law attorney, Voter Action legal director

The most important way that candidates can protect themselves from electronic voting problems is to demand that jurisdictions using electronic voting machines provide emergency paper ballots to voters in lieu of using the machines. Given all the evidence demonstrating the unreliability and insecurity of these machines, voters should be given the opportunity to cast their votes on emergency paper ballots. That would provide the opportunity to count those votes in a meaningful way. We simply cannot trust that electronic voting machines will properly count or record votes. So it's critical that we do what we can prior to the election to demand that emergency paper ballots be made available to voters.

At minimum, such ballots should be available to voters when electronic voting machines break down and cause long lines, which ultimately can disenfranchise voters in a different way by turning them away from the polls. People are busy. They may have other work to do and may not be able to stay in line.

If the jurisdiction refuses to provide this kind of safeguard -- and it has its own limitations, certainly, as a safeguard -- then I think it's critical that candidates be vigilant in demanding random inspections of these machines after the election to investigate whether or not these machines have malfunctioned or, even worse, been hacked. People have to understand that at the end of the day, it is very difficult to detect a hacking of an electronic voting machine when it's been done in a certain way, and that's been demonstrated by computer scientists who have shown how the machines can be hacked and be undetected.

There are other things that leading computer scientists have suggested, such as reconciling the number of voters that come into a precinct with the number of votes counted on the machine. But none of those safeguards will erase the overall vulnerability of this technology, which is a direct threat to the integrity of our process.

At a minimum, we must demand meaningful audits in every jurisdiction that uses an optical scan system. Because we have the paper ballots to count. We audit anything of value, and that should include our elections. In the case of an optical scan jurisdiction, the election is in fact auditable. It's important to take a meaningful percentage of the ballots and hand-count them. It should be higher than the 1 or 2 percent some jurisdictions use, if at all. That has to be done regardless of how the election turns out and regardless of the margin of victory in each jurisdiction. If a jurisdiction is not going to conduct a meaningful random audit, then I think it's incumbent upon the candidates to demand a recount in any optical scanned jurisdiction for at least some of the ballots so as to ensure that an audit actually takes place.

Finally, I think it's very important that candidates who are facing a close election result -- and at the presidential level this means any state where there's a close outcome -- that they not concede right away. The evidence of voting irregularities often does not come at the same speed that the TV coverage wants it to come. Which means that there's this rush to issue the declaration of who won before we know whether there were questionable actions that occurred in any particular state. In 2004, Senator Kerry conceded before much of the reporting had come in regarding widespread voting irregularities [in Ohio]. Evidence [later] came forward that demonstrated that there were real questions as to whether or not the votes had been properly counted. They [candidates] should not concede any state that is a close outcome until they are given ample time, along with their supporters and independent observers, to determine whether or not there are any questions as to the result.


At least 55 percent of Americans voting this November will vote on paper ballots that will be counted by optical scanners, according to Virginia-based Election Data Services, Inc. Our panelists agree that it is critical to election safety that a significant percentage of these paper ballots be randomly audited by hand -- at least 5 to 10 percent. Other key recommendations include urging the use of paper in any way, shape or form over touch-screens, increasing awareness of candidates, election officials, and the media as to e-voting vulnerabilities, and most importantly, urging the candidates not to concede until every last ballot has been counted and counted accurately.

But there is one other problem with taking on the machines. "Candidates are incredibly vulnerable to allegations of being a poor loser or conspiracy theorists if they challenge," says Ardizzone. "Many candidates who want a political career often choose not to challenge, but to keep their credibility for the next election. It's just unrealistic to ask them to sacrifice their political career for a completely non-vote-winning issue like election reform." Despite that, he recommends candidates ask as many questions as possible when discrepancies occur, and they should make the answers public.

Ardizzone raises one more intriguing point: "There are certain candidates who don't stand a chance of being elected and so have nothing to lose by rocking the boat. There is one candidate on the presidential ballot who is incredibly well-versed in the issue and who I am sure would participate in any investigation, because we filmed her extensively during the 2004 election cycle in Georgia (she's in one of the extra features on the 'Hacking Democracy' DVD). That candidate is Cynthia McKinney. Cynthia has rights to a recount almost anywhere in the country. Interesting thought."

What can you do? Get active. Get in your candidates' faces. Forward this report far and wide -- to candidates and their staff, friends, neighbors. And wake people the hell up. "How do you break through the sleep of the American electorate?" ponders Sancho. "In my opinion, they simply don't want to question elections simply because it's too difficult, too untidy, and causes problems." Friedman adds, "There is a school of thought which I find bizarre and twisted and totally without merit, that if you talk about these issues, people will give up and not vote at all. I have found absolutely no evidence of that, and in fact, the contrary is true." He notes that in 2006, Democrat Debra Bowen ran for Secretary of State in a year that Schwarzenegger was very popular. "Her big issue was election integrity and concerns about the voting machines. She shouldn't have won that election, but she did because she spoke about these issues of electoral integrity that nobody else is speaking about. So the people get it, but the media and the politicians don't. The politicians need to start talking about it."

Jefferson says that election officials need to step up. "They have the responsibility to demand better voting systems and, in the meantime, create and enforce strong security procedures. And it is federal officials who need to have their consciousness raised about standards, certification, and the need for meaningful auditability requirements." And that means we need to force them to do just that.

Swanson concludes, "All of us should make clear ahead of time that we will denounce and shame any candidate who either wins or loses a questionable election and does not seek to find answers to those questions."

Be the media. That means every one of us.

Jim Cirile is a freelance screenwriter, musician and journalist living in Los Angeles. This report was produced on behalf of