Diebold trust issues spur run on paper ballots

Plugged In

November 02, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

To make sense out of all the confusing and contradictory information out there about electronic voting, it helps to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist. Paranoia, after all, can be merely reading too much into reality.

Consider that at least 175,000 Maryland voters have asked for absentee ballots this year - an all-time high. In fact, their number represents about 10 percent of the votes cast in the 2002 gubernatorial election - certainly enough to turn even a relatively close contest into a cliffhanger.

There are a couple of reasons for the absentee boom. One is convenience. This is the first year voters can cast absentee ballots on demand, as opposed to certifying that they have a good reason, such as being incapacitated or out of town on Election Day.

But most of this year's absentees were recruited by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who decided he didn't trust the Diebold electronic voting system he personally approved just a few years ago. Or maybe he doesn't trust the State Board of Elections, a majority of whom he appointed.

Paranoid this may be, but it's paranoia well taken.

The Diebold AccuVote TS system - the electronic terminals that you and I are spending $106 million to install in every nook and cranny of the state - is inherently flawed because the results can't be verified. Like similar voting systems from other manufacturers, it's a classic "black box" that counts votes using secret, proprietary software.

In case of a dispute (and this election is likely to produce a big one), there's no way to verify the results.

Which makes you wonder why Ehrlich approved it in the first place and waited until now to reverse himself. Conspiracy theories abound.

My favorite conspiracy theory involves Diebold's former chairman, Walden "Wally" O'Dell, a well-known Republican activist and fundraiser who held a $1,000-a-plate dinner for President Bush and once said his top priority was delivering Ohio - his home state and Diebold's - to the Republican Party.

O'Dell took a lot of heat for that - but no one ever tied the Diebold system's many technical problems to partisan politics. On the other hand, after O'Dell left the company late last year, was it a coincidence that Ehrlich and other GOP supporters of Diebold systems suddenly became convinced that these long-standing flaws were serious problems?

Nope, that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory. Forget I mentioned it.

We are, however, left with the undeniable fact that the only truly verifiable results in Maryland will be absentee ballots - because they're on paper - a point Ehrlich and his minions have made in thousands of robo-calls to their constituents.

Now it would be easy to call this a classic FUD campaign. That stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - a great tactic if you think you might lose a close election. Keep the pot stirred up, discourage average people from voting while you turn out your own forces, and hope the election judges who count absentees will make all the breaks go your way. If the electronic machines descend into Glitch Hell, so much the better.

But that sounds a bit too much like conspiracy, doesn't it? Forget I mentioned it.

Even if there were a conspiracy, it might not be working. More Democrats than Republicans are requesting absentee ballots.

The Sun's poll this week shows Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley running neck and neck. We won't know how accurate that poll is until Tuesday night (if then), but if the governor thinks a paper landslide among absentees will put him over the top in the event of a dead heat, an electronic voting disaster or both, he might be disappointed.

In the same poll, by the way, more than 90 percent of likely voters said they are reasonably satisfied their votes will be counted. So they certainly haven't been persuaded by this column or others critical of unverified electronic voting. It also indicates that complaints from Maryland's elections administrator, Linda H. Lamone, and other defenders of electronic voting that we're undermining faith in the electoral system is wrong.

On the other hand, almost 10 percent think there's a good chance their votes won't be counted. What if they're right?

What if the electronic voting machines don't count their ballots? What if the system counts their votes but gives them to the other guy? In an all-electronic voting milieu, it's easy enough for a badly written line of software code, or a program that's sabotaged, to switch a few votes. And the tampering may be virtually undetectable. In fact, a reader this week mailed me a snippet of programming code that would do the job.

Last word on electronic voting, I promise: If you think I'm skeptical about e-voting, catch HBO's "Hacking Democracy" documentary tonight at 9. It's a chilling summary of the problems with electronic voting, including interviews with Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University computer security expert who has been a key player in attempts to raise the nation's consciousness about the dangers of unverified electronic systems.

Diebold calls the documentary unfair and slipshod.

If you don't get HBO or don't have time to watch, there's a good summary of the findings available at www.hbo.com/docs/programs/hackingdemocracy/. Diebold's response is available at www.dieboldes.com

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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