The twenty-first century comes to Wood County – at least that is how it is being sold. The old paper ballot is giving way to electronic voting. This article is not some nostalgic piece about how the lumber jack is becoming an endangered species, nor is it a salute to the tree huggers out there. I intend to give the very real financial reasons why such a move makes sense and how the dangers of using electronic voting, as currently configured, are very real and should worry anyone dedicated to free and fair elections. The impatient may wish to skip to the subtitle “The Big Concern” far below.
Wood County’s – What was Wood County’s old voting system and how did it work?
Wood County had a paper ballot system. In the old system paper ballots were the product of a printing company. These ballots were designed to be read by an M-100 ballot counter which sat on top of and was locked onto a sealed metal ballot box. The ballots were designed in such a way with printed timing marks to be read regardless of the orientation of the ballot; front/back, top/bottom – it did not matter how the ballot was fed into the machine, the M-100 could adjust and read the ballot. The ballot was filled out by the voter by filling in a small oval next to a candidate’s name which appeared under a specific political race heading. Measures were printed in their legal language with the ovals beside a yes and no or approve and disapprove notation. The voter, upon marking a ballot, placed the ballot into the M-100 which read the ballot and deposited it into the sealed ballot box. The seals were numbered and could be removed only by destroying the seal.
Each ballot was given a unique number and the election judge and assistant judge, one of which was a Republican the other a Democrat, would be responsible for accounting for each ballot that was issued to them on election day. The M-100 accumulated a count of all the ballots filled out and cast by voters on election-day. This number subtracted from the number of total ballots issued to the judges had to equal the number of unmarked ballots and ballots spoiled by voters which were returned on election night. In this way all printed ballots, voted and not voted, were accounted for. There are additional tight safeguards which assure only registered voters are issued ballots which are counted in the election. Although the ballots are numbered, there is no way to tie a specific ballot to a specific voter, as the voter, once verified, chooses at random the specific numbered ballot they will fill out. Neither the judges nor anyone in the room know the specific number on the ballot chosen by the voter.
The weakness of such a system is that the M-100, which counts the votes, could be rigged. Safeguards consisted of taking a reading of the votes at the beginning of voting day which must always be ‘zero’ in all races and taking another reading at the end of voting day. Both readings are printed by the M-100 and returned to the voting administrator at the end of voting day along with the card from the M-100 which recorded electronically all the votes in each race. The safeguard, if the M-100 were rigged, say to give the votes for one candidate to another candidate, is that the paper ballots are stored and could, if foul play is suspected, be counted by hand.
Such rigging would be difficult as the M-100 is not a sophisticated electronic device. It is not capable of shaving off a percentage of votes from one candidate and adding the total to another candidate. It only counts marks on specific regions of the ballot and assigns the vote to a specific candidate. It will do this consistently all day. Swapping votes between candidates through the M-100 would only work in a case where the race was close and yet the losing candidate would have to be confident that he would lose. To swap vote totals in a race which was not close would be obvious and almost surely result in a challenge and hand counting of the actual paper ballots.
My background – What qualifies me to speak on such technical issues?
My corporate career for almost four decades was always in computers, data capture equipment and machines controlled by computers. I have built computers from components and have written software in machine language. I have managed engineers and worked with software engineers on various systems. I have written technical manuals on systems and on the software which controlled them. I have developed management tools which captured and evaluated performance data. I have witnessed the subtle adjustments which can be achieved through software and the horrendous damage which can be caused by poorly written software. I have never, however, earned my living as a computer programmer. In retirement, I am a Republican precinct chair and a voting judge in Wood County for elections since 2010. It is with this background that I evaluate the electronic voting equipment which Wood County will be using in the March 4, 2014 primary and the general election to follow in November.
Before proceeding let me state unequivocally that I have no evidence of any vote rigging in Wood County. On the contrary, Wood County is blessed to have the most competent, fair and ethical elections administrator I can imagine. I doubt anyone could tell you if she is a Buddhist or a Rotarian. I have never witnessed her make any decision which comes from political bias; she is well respected by leaders of both political parties. Hers is a thankless task and whatever she receives in compensation is certain to be insufficient. It has been a privilege for me to work with such a dedicated professional.
Have a Hart
Wood County has purchased new electronic voting equipment from Hart InterCivic based in Austin, Texas. The equipment consists of a Judges’ Booth Controller (JBC) and up to twelve eSlate voting machines, the last of which is set up to accommodate disabled voters. The equipment is reasonably well made and, with a single noted exception, adheres to accepted engineering standards.
The Judges’ Booth Controller (JBC) has a sealed card which collects the votes from the eSlates and prints out totals before the polls are open and after they are closed much like the M-100 of our old system. The JBC does a lot more. It tells the operator which voting stations are in use and which are available for the next voter. It alerts the operator if a voter needs assistance. It tracks and separates provisional votes until they can be authenticated. It reduces (hopefully) spoiled ballots. Spoiled ballots are those mismarked by a voter and canceled before the vote is cast so that a new ballot can be issued to the voter. As a voting judge I appreciate the fact that this system eliminates the constant worry that the ballot count at the end of the day will be off.
The eSlates are reasonably intuitive. The bulk of Wood County’s aging population should be able to master voting on the equipment the first time out. A few, however, will most likely be put off by the technology and will never vote again. Roughly half of our voters need to sit while voting because of the ravages of aging. With the exception of the last eSlate in the line, voters will have to stand to vote. We may lose a few voters because of this as well. Were they a demographic the left counts on, there would be cries of voter suppression, but since Wood County is reliably conservative in its voting practices, I expect that beyond this article little will be said.
With this in mind, once a voter has selected a language and entered the access code issued on a chit at the JBC, the voters will have mastered the controls on the eSlate. The chit system of issuing access codes will be familiar to anyone who has ordered a hamburger in the last ten years. The voter then scrolls through the ballot on the screen selecting and marking the most appealing candidates and initiatives. Then, if the voter remembers to press the cast ballot button, his/her ballot will be sent to the JBC and a copy stored on the eSlate as well. If the voter fails to press the cast ballot button, it is up to the person at the JBC to catch them before they leave the polling place. Otherwise, the ballot is spoiled and the voter will never know their vote did not count. In cases of high voter turn-out, inattention or malice by the JBC operator, this will surely happen. This is one of the few apparent weaknesses of the Hart system. My major concern, and I will address that later in this article, is the weakness which is not apparent.
Just looking at the equipment I find two obvious concerns. First, even when set up properly, the voting booths are rickety. I fear some of our aging voters will lean on the equipment and both the eSlate and the voter will wind up on the floor. This could result in personal injury and/or a temporary shutdown of the entire polling location. Second is that the cable labeling does not conform to standard engineering practices. Reasonably bright poll workers will not be slowed down by this but I can see where damage to the cable connections will occur where a poll worker is not diligent. The equipment is light weight and easy to assemble for most poll workers. The written instructions are clear with only one obvious error which most poll workers will catch. All in all Hart has done a good job of making the equipment easy to use and functionally appealing to elections administrators and poll workers alike.
• Equipment is light weight and easy to set up.
• Equipment is easy to use for most voters and poll workers.
• Cost savings from not printing, transporting and storing paper ballots.
• Ballot management is handled automatically, reducing concerns for election judges.
• Election reporting and tabulation is made easier for elections administrators.
The lack of a paper ballot which can be recounted concerns me. I think it should concern you too. In the event an election result is suspicious or just so close it requires a recount, what is it we are supposed to recount? Where are the actual votes? The JBC accumulates vote totals just like the old M-100. The actual ballot is just vapor. I know how to follow a paper trail. I do not know how to follow a vapor trail. There is just no there, there. All you can do is just re-add the totals from the various machines, shrug your shoulders and accept the same numbers you accepted before.
The issues of cable labeling and the standing requirement are easily fixed. The issue of abandoned ballots (failure to press the cast ballot button) requires increased vigilance on the part of poll workers. This will not always happen. We are told to expect lines where before there were none. There are two reasons for this. First, at least initially, more time will be required to instruct the voters and assist voters who did not understand the new instructions the first time. Second, the cost of an additional voting booth using the old system was the cost of a tri-fold piece of cardboard with the words “Voting Booth” printed on it. The cost of an additional voting booth using the Hart system would easily be equivelent to a month’s pay for most Wood County residents. The result in my polling place, which used to have eight voting booths where each voter could sit while filling out his/her ballot, is that we will now be able to accommodate no more than three voters at a time. Many elderly will be required to wait in line.
The Big Concern:
The major concern in any election is vote rigging, vote tampering, election stealing; call it whatever you like but the hopeless feeling by voters that the whole system is rigged and we are just victims waiting for whatever fate the powers-that-be have designed for us. Historically there have been cases, some obvious, some murky and some only the fantasy of perpetual victims, of stolen elections. These are concerns for all who participate in a democratic process.
Most require a conspiracy, either vast or small. It is this requirement for conspiracy which makes us skeptical of most claims of stolen elections. Often they come with stories of multitudes of illegal voters, or numbers of people stuffing ballot boxes in the dead of night. The more people involved in a conspiracy, the more likely it is to unravel. You need get only one of the miscreants to talk for the whole thing to fall apart. In party politics it is easier to believe that a limited conspiracy could work. But most election systems and procedures are designed to mitigate the likelihood of such shenanigans.
The Electoral College is one example of a system designed to mitigate the possibility of stolen elections. Even if you were able to corrupt the Secretary of State in one state, the damage is limited to the number of electors granted that state. Imagine a system of electing the President by popular vote. The Secretary of State of a single state or even the Elections Administrator of a large county in one state could turn in a vote total well in excess of their own voting rolls in order to swing a presidential election. The framers of the Constitution thought about these things. We should too.
Our small rural county is another example. All polling locations and ballot boards are populated by representatives of both political parties. The stored votes are locked up and even the Elections Administrator has to request a key and have someone else in attendance if they are to be exhumed for recounting.
I have spoken to no less than four representatives from Hart InterCivic including the CEO and the Vice-President. I have been specific in stating my concerns and Hart has offered no evidence that there is anything in place to ensure that my worst fears are not realized. In truth their answers were often vague, even designed to put off the technically unaware. They avoided my calls and responded only when prompted by a paying customer. I was even told that they could not convince me and did not care to try since their usual answers were not good enough. In other words, I was blown off. I did not take this personally. They are a company with a product to sell and I was a nuisance with no real power to affect a sale either here or in any other county. They spoke to me only as a courtesy to a paying customer who asked them to. I take no personal offence; however, I am concerned that our elections are our elections.
The problem is this; who writes the software? It is not even as one fellow concerned citizen put it, “All you have to do is promise some programmer a house on a beach.” This would be a conspiracy even if it involved only these two people. But what if a lone programmer, convinced that he was doing this for the ‘good’ of the country, decided to steal Texas for a presidential election? This is bigger than stealing a county judgeship; we are talking about the Commander in Chief.
How could a lone programmer steal the state of Texas? Let me first treat you to some of the answers I received from Hart:
“There is no USB connector on either the JBC or the eSlate.”
I’m sorry but there is a “D” connector clearly labeled “Modem” on the JBC. It may be old school but it is still effective at transferring data and software.
“Many Texas counties already successfully use the Hart system. All the big population centers do.”
Wait a minute; don’t all the big population centers turn in vote counts consistently to the left? I wonder if I can get a grant to study the political movement of Texas counties which have switched to a Hart electronic voting system?
“We have been certified by EAC,” which turns out to be the Election Assistance Commission.
I do not know why I am supposed to be impressed by this. The FDA is supposed to protect us from bad food and drugs but every week there are recalls of dangerous food items and every day there are ads from some law firm trolling for victims of FDA approved drugs. Interestingly, Systest, the company charged with certifying the Hart InterCivic system, has the following disclaimer which I have copied and pasted from its website:
“This Certification Test Plan must not be used by the client to claim product certification, approval, or endorsement by NVLAP, NIST, or any agency of the Federal Government.
I asked Hart’s VP if the system software was just software or firmware. I did this more to let him know that I had some technical understanding so that he would stop giving me answers more intended to shut me up rather than to inform me. System software is like Windows which runs under functional software like the MS Word software I am using to create this article. He indicated that it was firmware. Firmware is software imbedded in a hardware device called an IC (integrated circuit). Sometimes the software in the device can be changed as easy as any other software. Most often changing firmware requires extra proprietary operations such a programming directly onto the IC with a laser device, or sometimes the actual IC must be removed and replaced with a new updated version. The IC may be pluggable or it could be hard soldered into a circuit board. If the board is multilayered, as most sophisticated electronics these days are, replacing the IC would be a difficult operation in the field. As you can see some firmware is firmer than others. It depends on the level of security you are trying to achieve.
All of this is well and good but none of it answered my question, “What if a lone programmer, convinced that he was doing this for the ‘good’ of the country, decided to steal Texas for a presidential election?” You can understand their reluctance to answer the question. Implied is that the programmer works for Hart.
They assured me that the equipment “was tested the day before the election and the day after.” Maybe good enough for a technical neophyte, but if a programmer were to write a subroutine, a short string of code activated only if certain conditions are met, and one of these conditions was that the current date is the date of the election, any test run on any other day (the day before and the day after the election) the subroutine would be inactive during the test like a dormant cancer waiting for the right time. The response from Hart was “We would never let that happen.” It was the same song we hear from spent politicians, “Trust me.” To which I ask, “Why? Why should I trust you?” At this point my interview with Hart was politely terminated; something about catching a plane. I get it, they need to make money and it was unlikely that they would make a dime off of me.
Consider for a moment that the subroutine mentioned in the above paragraph took a measly 1.5% of the votes for one presidential candidate and switched them to another. That would make a 3% shift. Who would notice if Wood County, which usually votes 86% Republican, suddenly voted 83% Republican? It would still be a solid Republican district. Who would complain? Who would notice? What if the same subtle shift occurred in every Texas County? Who would notice?
Haven’t leftist activists sworn to turn Texas Blue? Already, Elections Administrators around the state are being inundated with requests for mail in ballots. How hard do you think it would be to send a “community organizer” into each retirement home and hospice facility, identify those who seem confused, and help them apply for a ballot by mail? How hard would it be for this same community organizer to come back and assist them to fill out their ballot? This has been done before and I think it may be happening here now. Think of how a single programmer, employed by Hart, could accomplish so much more, so much easier and with virtually no exposure.
Remember, Hart is located in Austin, the San Francisco of Texas. I understand the unfairness of such stereotyping. Coming from LA to small-town East Texas, I know many assumed I was a brain dead left coast leftie. But these prejudices come from experience and a wise person is cautious. I cannot think of a reason why I would assume a young software engineer from Austin was not left of center in his politics.
Hart InterCivic could easily design electronic voting equipment which produces a paper ballot which the voter could review and verify for accuracy and then place in a ballot box which electronically counts the votes. These paper ballots could then be stored and manually counted if there is suspicion of election rigging. But Hart does not offer it and elections administrators do not demand it. The reasons for this are financial. But there is a cost of not doing this and it is not a financial one. The cost is in the confidence of voters that their vote was properly counted and that the election, even when it does not go the way the voter had hoped, was both fair and verifiable. To me, the most interesting questions are why does Hart not offer such a system and why do Election Administrators not demand it?
When I suggested, as a means of accommodating Wood County’s aging population, providing shortened legs for the equipment Wood County purchased so that voters could sit while voting, I was informed by the Hart representative, “Engineering no longer supported our “new” system because it was considered obsolete. Hart now has a new system.” This is interesting because the reason given for retiring Wood County’s old system was that it was obsolete and we could no longer get parts. When I mentioned this to a Wood County Commissioner I was told that they had not been informed that the new equipment was considered obsolete by Hart. OOPS!
So, I’m concerned. Are you?