Election officials across the country are currently scrambling to install electronic voting machines in time for the midterm elections this fall. The touch-screen technology, they insist, will make voting as easy and secure as withdrawing cash from an ATM. ''This technology has been used effectively for ten to fifteen years,'' says David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, a leading manufacturer of electronic voting machines.
There are certainly good reasons to modernize the nation's ridiculously outdated voting equipment; it was Florida's ''hanging chads,'' after all, that cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000. But mounting evidence suggests that touch-screen machines present a far graver threat to the integrity of America's elections -- and that leading Republicans have taken money from Diebold to push local election officials to adopt its technology. It is time for Congress and the Justice Department to launch a full-scale investigation into the company and its equipment.
Vote Rigging Repeated studies have shown that touch-screen machines, which provide voters with no paper record of their ballots, are highly susceptible to tampering. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the leading federal watchdog agency, the machines are ''eminently hackable.'' It takes only a few minutes to open the machines and insert a PC card containing malicious code that will switch votes from one candidate to another. In a demonstration conducted last year before the Board of Elections in Leon County, Florida, computer security expert Herbert Thompson cracked into an electronic machine in under sixty seconds, altering the internal code and changing the vote count.
''Every board of election has staff members with the technological ability to fix the election,'' says Ion Sancho, supervisor of the election board in Leon County. ''Even one corrupt staffer can throw an election. Without paper records, it could happen under my nose and there is no way I'd find out about it.''
Avi Rubin, a computer-science professor at Johns Hopkins University who has received $7.5 million from the National Science Foundation to study security for electronic voting, says it doesn't take a corrupt official to rig a federal election. ''With electronic machines, you can commit wholesale fraud with a single alteration of software,'' he says. ''There are a million little tricks you can build into the software that allow you to do whatever you want. I could do it for you right now on software I have.''
Undue Influence After the Florida fiasco in 2000, Diebold saw an opportunity. To persuade Rep. Bob Ney to promote its machines in a package of election reforms he was drafting called the Help America Vote Act, the company hired two lobbyists with close ties to the Ohio congressman. Diebold paid at least $180,000 to David DiStefano, Ney's former chief of staff. And it shelled out as much as $275,000 to the lobbying firm of the best-connected man on Capitol Hill: Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff has now been convicted of bribing Ney -- but Americans will be paying for the results of Diebold's influence for years. As part of the Help America Vote Act, every precinct in America is now required to install at least one machine accessible to disabled voters -- a mandate that has already fueled the spread of touch-screen technology and cost taxpayers almost $3 billion. ''These vendors have a Halliburton-like hold on the Republican leadership,'' says Rep. John Conyers.
Diebold's influence extends to Ohio, where top Republicans have pushed hard to install the company's machines. Matt Damschroder, the chair of the Franklin County Board of Elections, was fined a month's pay last year for accepting a $10,000 check from Diebold made out to the county GOP in 2004, on the same day the board accepted bids for new voter-registration software. Once he was caught, Damschroder ratted out his friend, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, telling authorities that a Diebold consultant boasted of funneling $50,000 to Blackwell's ''political interests.''
Blackwell and Diebold deny the transactions ever took place. But in April of last year, after engaging in secret negotiations with the company, Blackwell emerged with the triumphant announcement that he'd reached a deal to equip Ohio with Diebold machines at a cut-rate price. He didn't bother to mention that he had just bought nearly $10,000 in Diebold stock -- a ''mistake'' he now blames on his financial manager. He also neglected to reveal that as part of the deal -- as revealed in a company e-mail to Blackwell -- Diebold insisted he use his influence as secretary of state in a way that would guarantee the company a state monopoly. Blackwell complied by setting such an early cutoff date for counties to select their new machines that other manufacturers would be unable to get their equipment certified in time. A lawsuit filed by a Diebold competitor and thirty-two counties in Ohio eventually forced Blackwell to roll back the deadline. But in the end, Diebold still wound up selling its machines to forty-seven of the state's eighty-eight counties -- just in time for elections this fall.
Enough. Only a complete investigation by federal authorities can determine the full extent of any bribery and vote rigging that has taken place. The public must be assured that the power to count the votes -- and to recount them, if necessary -- will not be ceded to for-profit corporations with a vested interest in superseding the will of the people. America's elections are the most fundamental element of our democracy -- not a market to be privatized by companies like Diebold.