NYTimes on Diebold

A big-picture look at the whole mess: Machine Politics in the Digital Age [pdf]

Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, does not buy such conspiracy theories, but he said he was appalled at the situation.

“It’s outrageous,” he said. “Not only does Mr. O’Dell want the contract to provide every voting machine in the nation for the next election – he wants to ‘deliver’ the election to Mr. Bush. There are enough conflicts in this story to fill an ethics manual.”

[…] About 15,000 internal Diebold e-mail messages also found their way to the Internet. Some referred to software patches installed on Diebold machines days before elections. Others indicated that the Microsoft Access database used in Diebold’s tabulation servers was not protected by passwords. Diebold, which says passwords are now installed on machines, is threatening legal action against anyone who posts the files or links to them, contending that the e-mail is copyrighted.

[…] “There’s a feeling in the computer scientist community of utter dismay about the state of voting-machine technology,” said Douglas W. Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and a member of Iowa’s board of examiners for voting machines.

David L. Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford, said: “If I was a programmer at one of these companies and I wanted to steal an election, it would be very easy. I could put something in the software that would be impossible for people to detect, and it would change the votes from one party to another. And you could do it so it’s not going to show up statistically as an anomaly.”

Diebold says there are enough checks and balances in the system to catch this. “Programmers do not set up the elections; election officials do,” Mr. Swidarski said. “All a programmer knows are numbers, which are not assigned to real people and parties until set-up time.”

But Professor Dill says the inherent complexity of software code makes it nearly impossible to ensure that computerized elections are fair. He advocates that machines be required to print out a paper ballot, which voters can use to verify their selections and which will serve as an audit trail in the event of irregularities or recounts.

[…] Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist and president of the consulting firm Notable Software, who has been studying election systems for 14 years, says the trouble with this system is that it is secretive. It prohibits anyone from knowing whether the data coming out of the terminals represents what voters actually selected. If someone were to challenge election results, the data in memory cards and the software running the voting terminals could be examined only by Diebold representatives.

MS. MERCURI ran up against this last year, when she served as a consultant in a contested city council election in Boca Raton, Fla. Her request to look at the software inside the city’s machines, made by Sequoia, to see if there were any bugs or malfunctions, was denied by a judge on the grounds that the technology was protected by trade-secret clauses. Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold routinely include such clauses in their contracts.

“These companies are basically saying ‘trust us,’ ” Ms. Mercuri said. “Why should anybody trust them? That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.”