Demonstration on a Diebold voting machine AP

Demonstration on a Diebold voting machine AP

11/13/2007

Our Corporate Elections

by Lauren Cox

Among the campaign contributions, endorsements and rallies this primary season, Diebold might be the only company in politics that wants the public to forget its name.

This August, Diebold told the Associated Press that it would disown and rename its voting machine division after it failed to find an interested buyer. It's not surprising news considering that several states have filed lawsuits against Diebold, or that votes cast on Diebold machines were miscounted in Ohio and went missing in Florida.

So America, meet the new Premier Elections Solutions and remember exactly how an ATM industry giant like Diebold became a corporate leader in our elections.

Diebold made its name in politics shortly after the hanging chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election. Folks on Capitol Hill were looking for a quick solution to paper ballot problems like pregnant chads and they found it in paper-less, easy-to-use electronic voting machines similar to ATMs. By 2002, Congress had passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The act gave $3 billion to help states buy electronic voting machines and set up the Electronic Assistance Commission (EAC) to oversee the business deals. Forty-seven states signed up and the corporate outsourcing of our elections began.

Diebold, being a corporation, has a responsibility to make its shareholders money and one way to do this is to keep the source code to Diebold software a secret. As long as Diebold kept its source code secret, it could keep making money from states that wanted Diebold-compatible upgrades and technical help. That's fine for Diebold but not for democracy and the security of elections. If the elections ran entirely on electronic votes saved on secret Diebold software then Diebold automatically managed the election. In other words; the elections went corporate.

Even before the EAC was up and running, discussions went from open democratic forums to private business deals. David Dill, professor at Standford University and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, said the committee that drafted HAVA refused to hear any testimony from a technologist who would understand the implications of electronic voting. If the committee had asked a computer security expert, they'd likely have heard a request for paper: paper-only ballots, optical-scan paper ballots, or at least a paper record printed after each vote.

Crash a computer and it becomes clear that electronic records are about as permanent as lines drawn in sand. All a crook would need is the right access to wipe out voting records and replace them with new votes. A paper vote on the other hand, cannot miraculously morph from a vote for one candidate to a vote for another. In order to keep paper votes secure, districts traditionally have an equal number of republican and democrat officials handling the votes. But the only way to keep electronic votes secure is to use secure software. Yet Diebold wouldn't share their software with top computer security experts or election officials.

After the government and electronic voting companies ignored concerns from security experts, security experts found their own leaks. Academics from elite computer science departments -- places like U.C. Berkeley, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Washington --- published reports about poorly designed electronic voting computer security. Some experts even went to the media with security flaws. In an HBO special "Hacking Democracy," security consultant Harri Hursti rigged a staged election in Leon County, Fla. Last fall, Ph.D. students from Princeton went on Fox News to show how an amateur hacker could switch votes on a Diebold machine.

"They [Diebold] seemed to be under the impression that no one will ever get to see their software, so they were very sloppy in building the code," said Alex Halderman, one of the Ph.D. students who appeared on Fox News. "It's rather naive, really."

With elections around the corner, America can't afford to be naive. Diebold was not alone in ignoring security concerns from the public. Other electronic voting companies behaved the same way. It was our government who outsourced elections and sacrificed the principles or transparency and fairness for corporate principles of competition and control.