July 24, 2003

Inside the black box

As noted in earlier LNS reports, the _resident's
cabal, and the "vast right-wing conspiracy" (yes, it
exists and has been documented by Conason/Lyons in
Hunting of The President, and corroborated by Brock in
Blinded by The Right) it dominates, is going for a
triple lock on the 2004 election (i.e., #1 outspend
the Democrats by millions of dollars in corporate
donations, #2 caricature and marginalize the Democrats
through the corporate media, and #3 in close races,
get their hands on the voting process itself...Please
read this book review, get a copy of the book itself
and pass this story on...


July 26-August 1 2003 Vol 189 No 3298
Inside the black box
by Mark Revington

What do possible election fraud in the United States
and a small, independent website based in New Zealand
have in common? The word "scoop".
It's an unassuming place from the street, a quiet
backwater in a Wellington suburb. A little unkempt,
the house of someone unconcerned with external
appearances. The lawn doesn't appear to have met a
mower that it couldn't tame and the paint is cracked
and dry. But then Alastair Thompson has other things
on his mind, notably the story he calls "bigger than

It broke a couple of weeks ago on Thompson's Scoop
website (www.scoop.co.nz) with this introduction:
"IMPORTANT NOTE: Publication of this story marks a
watershed in American political history. It is offered
freely for publication in full or part on any and all
Internet forums, blogs and noticeboards. All other
media are also encouraged to utilise material. Readers
are encouraged to forward this to friends and
acquaintances in the United States and elsewhere."

Cue thunder, lightning, ominous roll of drums. What
warranted this kind of build-up?

An apparent exposé of a huge security flaw in the
United States voting system, primarily uncovered by a
US writer named Bev Harris, author of a soon-to-be
published book called Black Box Voting:
Ballot-Tampering in the 21st Century and someone with
whom Thompson has been working closely in recent

Was it bigger than Watergate? Far more computer-savvy
minds than this writer's are still debating the
significance of what appeared on the Scoop website,
but the kind of hyperbole employed was always going to
attract criticism. So far, the mainstream US media
have ignored the Scoop story, but it ignited fierce
debate across the Internet, drew huge traffic to the
Scoop site, and fed increasing controversy over
electronic voting machines.

Think of vote counts in New Zealand and the
overwhelming image is a Dickensian one, of draughty
halls, harried volunteers, and a tally that always
seems to be late, inevitably followed by some sort of
official witch-hunt.

Think of the US and the overwhelming image is of a
president who got fewer votes than his rival, yet
still got the top job thanks to massive confusion in
the state in which his brother is governor.

Perhaps President Bush had that in mind late last year
when he signed into law the Help America Vote Act,
which will provide almost $6.8 billion to states to
buy new electronic voting machines. By next year, many
US voters will cast their ballot on controversial
touch-screen machines, which don't provide a paper
audit trail, owned by a small number of private
companies who keep their software secret.

Can the machines be trusted? Of course, say the
companies that manufacture and programme them and the
officials who implement them. Security is their second
name. A growing band of computer experts don't agree.
Computer programs can always be hacked, says Stanford
University computer scientist David Dill, who
organised a petition signed by more than 300 of the
top scientists and computer boffins in the US, calling
for voting machines to have a paper audit trail. It
would be easy for a programmer to change the way a
machine counted votes during an election while keeping
the change secret from any security tests, says Dill.
"The election could be running smooth as silk, only
the wrong person is elected and no one can tell. No
one can prove it," he told the Mercury News.

What does this have to do with Scoop? For the past few
months the website has been running stories from
Harris, detailing discrepancies and curious
coincidences in electronic voting technology in the
US. Until now, the companies that make these machines
had managed to keep their software secret. But Harris,
who has spent thousands of hours interviewing everyone
from election officials to the programmers who worked
for the companies that made the electronic voting
machines, discovered a public file transfer site that
contained up to 40,000 files, including manuals,
source codes, and a vote counting system that she and
Thompson say contains a trapdoor that could allow
someone to alter the data.

The files came from Diebold Election Systems, one of
the largest providers of electronic voting technology
in the world. Diebold has since closed the website and
says the files were old and unimportant.

Harris believes otherwise and there is a long list of
interviews on her website (www.blackboxvoting.com) to
back her case. The full set of files has been copied
and since dispersed around the world, including
publication on Scoop. "We can now reveal for the first
time the location of a complete online copy of the
original data set," trumpeted Scoop. At the very
least, says Thompson, the existence of the files on a
public website is a bad security breach. What they
contain may be much worse.

HARRIS FIRST BECAME interested in electronic voting
when she read a story called "Assume crooks are in
charge of the election machines". She had spent time
in the 1990s uncovering financial fraud and had
written a book called How to Embezzle a Fortune, which
contained tips on how to identify accounting fraud and
uncover embezzled funds. She knew her way around basic
research and, just out of curiosity, decided to
research some of the companies involved in electronic
voting machines.

The first names she discovered, she says, "were the
wrong people, people with vested interests. It was
like opening Pandora's Box." A book contract followed
and then Harris began sending out her stories.

"During the past five months, Bev Harris has emailed
to news organisations a series of reports that detail
alarming problems in the high-tech voting machinery
currently sweeping its way through American democracy.
But almost no one is paying attention," begins a story
in Salon.com that goes on to conclude that Harris is
neither a conspiracy nut nor an ideologue. "Her
stories on voting machines are based not on her
politics but on serious, in-depth investigative

Thompson, however, was paying attention. "I sent out a
press release and he responded," says Harris. "I'm an
equal opportunity person. He may not be as big as the
New York Times, but Alastair has the courage to go out
and take on the dangerous stories."

Harris discovered that Chuck Hagel, the Republican
senator for Nebraska, just happened to be the former
president of the company that makes the voting
machines on which Hagel won two elections, and still
had a financial stake in the company but hadn't
disclosed it. And his campaign treasurer, Michael
McCarthy, was chairman of the merchant banking company
in which Hagel had shares and which part-owned
Election Systems and Software, the company making the
voting machines. It seemed like a conflict of interest
to Harris, who put up the documents on her website.
That prompted an immediate letter from lawyers acting
for ES&S, which said in part that even though Harris
may be telling the truth, it still could be considered
defamatory. They demanded that she take the documents
down. Harris refused. A law suit? Bring it on, she
says, anticipating a treasure trove waiting to be
found during the discovery period.

However, Hagel was expected to win Nebraska. In
Georgia last year, the sitting Democrat senator
unexpectedly lost his seat and the state elected a
Republican governor for the first time in over a
century. All votes were cast on touch-screen voting
machines made by Diebold. It was, say observers, a
curious result at the very least. That's not to say
there was anything doubtful about the Georgia result.
There is no smoking gun. Even Scoop is at pains to
point this out with a caveat: "It is important to note
that the research into this subject has not
established that the files we have been working on
were in fact in situ in County Election Supervisors
offices at the last election – nor have we proof that
the back door we have discovered – which might enable
the rigging of elections – was actually used in any
recent election. However, it is the considered opinion
of all those involved in this investigation that it is
not up to us as journalists or programmers to prove
that elections were rigged, rather it is a
responsibility of the electoral system itself to prove
its integrity.

"Significantly, we do not believe we have sufficient
resources to complete this investigation to its
conclusion and are therefore making available our
findings to the media, community organisations,
political parties, computer scientists and geeks in
the anticipation that they will pick up the torch and
extend this inquiry into every county in the United

What they have discovered, according to Thompson,
demonstrates method, opportunity and some inexplicable
circumstantial evidence. Call him a conspiracy
theorist, and many have. "But the implications are so
horrendous that people don't want to contemplate it.
At this point in time, the only way to conduct safe
elections in the US is to revert to the paper-based
counting systems that have worked elsewhere."

Posted by richard at July 24, 2003 12:28 PM