photo: Ochen Kaylan
The Dancius were shocked to discover that the machine software used to tabulate votes was shielded from the public as part of a $14 million dollar contract Palm Beach County signed with the manufacturer, Sequoia Systems of Oakland, California. Such non-disclosure agreements are common in the election world. Voting machine companies say they need them to protect their copyrighted program code from tampering and from the competition.
The Dancius weren't allowed to handle the actual machines used in the vote, but Rebecca Mercuri did get her hands on a demonstration model.
With a Palm Beach County election official nerviously looking on, Mercuri demonstrates how the machine could malfunction.
"See, I just did it again," Mercuri says. "Watch. You'll see. When you press two things, and you can see my fingers clearly aren't pressing that one... "
When she pressed her thumb and index finger simultaneously on two candidates' names, suddenly a third candidate was selected.
"I think that's a problem," noted Meruri. "I showed how it was possible using a touch screen to vote for something you didn't actually touch for."
This was precisely the kind of malfunction Mercuri suspected in the Danciu case. But Palm Beach County Election Supervisor Teresa Lapore told Mercuri it wasn't a malfunction. It was just a trick, she said.
"You're trying to trick the system," complained Lapore. "Normal persons wouldn't try to do that."
Lapore pointed out that voters could check their selections on a review page before the ballot was cast. Palm Beach County officials and the manufacturer Sequoia insisted the machines were just fine. Other officials suggested Danciu's complaint was really a case of sour grapes from a fading politician.
In the end, the circuit court judge dismissed the case. Though he agreed there were technical problems with a small number of voting machines, they weren't enough to change the outcome. And the judge said the Dancius failed to show evidence of deliberate fraud.
David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, explains why this is important, "We need to satisfy the people on the losing end of an election that the election was fair and honest...There was a famous quote by Dick Tuck which was, 'The people have spoke, the bastards,' It was one of the least gracious concession speeches I've heard, but it has a positive aspect to it, which is that I lost the election fair and square."
The Dancius weren't satisfied they lost fair and square because without paper, there was no way to independently audit an electronic vote. David Dill takes this point further. Without paper ballots to check the integrity of the system, he believes a programmer could manipulate computer code common in many machines and throw an entire election, without anyone ever finding out.
"We're moving to a system that's computerized, " continues Dill, "where there may be a very small number of people, maybe even one person, who could change hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes around the country."
In the spring of 2003, David Dill launched a campaign to stop the proliferation of electronic voting machines--at least until they can produce an independent audit trail. His campaign got a boost in August 2003 when researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported uncovering serious security flaws in secret program code used in voting machines produced by the Diebold company, one of America's largest voting technology firms. Researchers were able to hack their way in to the computer.
"That indicates to me that the people who designed the software and the people who were supposed to be inspecting and certifying it just don't know enough about computer security to be dealing with something as sensitive as electronic voting," says Dill.
Diebold rejected the charges and said the study was biased. The company insists its machines are secure. But the study's worrisome conclusions have sent tremors through local governments.
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