Black Box Backlash

Bev Harris of Renton created a firestorm with her national Internet campaign against electronic voting. Now she's trying to persuade people in the real world that their democracy is on the line.

America's leading critic of electronic voting lives on a cul-de-sac in the blue-collar suburb of Renton. Bev Harris drives a gray Dodge Caravan with a bumper sticker that says, "Keep honking, I'm reloading." Last year, several things broke in her home— the furnace, a sink, and a toilet—and she didn't have the money to get them fixed right away. In fact, the sink and toilet are still broken.

At 52, Harris worries about being overweight, and she can't find a hairdresser she's happy with. In recent years she's made her living as a literary publicist, hawking such books as Odyssey of the Soul by Hugh Harmon and Pamela Chilton, which is about channeling spirits, and Two Codes for Murder, a true-crime story by Dorothea Fuller Smith. A year and half ago, she admits, "I thought voting was boring."

Clearly, Harris' feelings about voting have changed a lot in the past 18 months. Voting has become Harris' passion and vocation. Voting issues consume her life, even pushing her to work around the clock at times.

Since September 2002, Harris has battled a U.S. senator, large corporations, and election officials across the country in her effort to ensure our votes are counted fairly and accurately. At first, she focused on the problems with computer voting. Since then, the name of her Web site (www.blackboxvoting.org) and her book devoted to the subject—Black Box Voting—have become shorthand for concerns about computers and elections. Moreover, her astounding discoveries on the subject have resulted in damning research by distinguished computer-science professors and numerous articles in major newspapers across the country. Secretaries of state, including Republican Sam Reed of Washington and Democrat Kevin Shelley of California, have responded by proposing key changes in how we will cast our ballots in the future.

HARRIS HAS BECOME a media darling. A major profile is due in Vanity Fair, and her cell phone rings constantly with requests for interviews and documentation, from TV stations and newspapers around the country. Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich all mentioned concerns about electronic voting during this year's campaign. Former first lady and current U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., are sponsoring national legislation responding to the issues raised by Harris and her allies.

Now she has broadened her critique of election security to include subjects like voting over the Internet and the integrity of the software that counts paper ballots across the nation, including those in King County. More importantly, she wants to focus on solutions to the problems she has uncovered. To do that, she and her allies are taking what has largely been an online movement and bringing it into the real world. They are doing speaking tours, lobbying for legis- lative changes, and even running for office. Will they be as successful in the meat world as they have been on the Internet? Or will they be like presidential candidate Howard Dean—an online tiger and an analog kitten?

Harris' online success has brought increased scrutiny. Many elections professionals, private and public, believe her alarm over voting security is unfounded. Even some of her allies find her rhetoric hard to take. Harris is unapologetic. She offers a typically unvarnished opinion on elections officials' understanding of security: "I've never seen such a clueless bunch of people." She feels the mainstream media have begun to back her up. "I've been called every kind of nutcase there is, and now I've been in The New York Times three times," she says.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed didn't think paper-trail audit capability was necessary—until he toured the state and talked to concerned voters.

(Evan Parker)

TOUCH VS. PUNCH

After the election meltdown of 2000, when an incredibly close race for president shined a very bright light on the shortcomings of the American electoral system, Congress took action. It passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, telling states to phase out the infamous punch-card ballots, with their pregnant, hanging, and dimpled chads. HAVA also required a touch-screen voting machine for every polling place, mainly so blind voters could cast their ballots unassisted. As an incentive, Congress included billions in funding for conversion of local electoral systems. Faced with the need to upgrade technology and some federal largesse, some states, like Maryland, and some counties, like Snohomish here in Washington, decided to convert completely to touch-screen polling places. As a result, more than 20 percent of American voters will use touch-screen machines in this year's presidential election, according to Election Data Services, a D.C. consultancy.

Voting on a touch screen is like using a bank's automatic teller machine. There is one vital difference, however: The voting machine does not give you a paper receipt. The absence of a paper trail has alarmed a variety of people, including some of the nation's most renowned computer scientists. Their bottom line? These machines could be hacked. The solution? An auditable, voter-verified paper trail.

SOURCE CODE MOTHER LODE

For Harris, this all started with a search of the Internet during her lunch hour. She was cruising Commondreams.org, a left-wing Web site, when she noticed an article by Lynn Landes. Since she was still sore about the Florida machinations of the 2000 presidential race, the article's scathing critique of computer voting piqued Harris' interest.

She decided to do some research. She learned that Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., had an ownership share in Election Systems & Software (ES&S), whose Web site brags that its equipment counted 56 percent of the nation's votes in each of the past four presidential elections. Moreover, ES&S voting machines count all the votes in Hagel's home state of Nebraska, except in those counties that tally ballots by hand. While there is nothing illegal about the senator's stake in the company, it didn't seem right to Harris. When she posted the information about the situation on her Web site, she promptly received a cease-and-desist order from ES&S lawyers. She e-mailed the cease-and-desist order to 3,000 of her media contacts. Then she thought she'd better tell her husband, Sonny Dudley, who is African American. She says he framed the issue in terms of civil rights. "'My people died for the right to vote,' he boomed. 'I will vote for who I want and no one's gonna stop me,'" she recalls in her book.

The issue doesn't seem so dramatic to LouAnn Linehan, Sen. Hagel's chief of staff. She says Hagel has never tried to hide his ties to ES&S and that Harris' claims about the senator run from "inaccurate" to "outrageous." Says ES&S spokesperson Megan McCormick: "Misinformation and inaccuracies were posted on Bev Harris' Web site. Because of the extent of the misinformation, ES&S expressed through an outside attorney its concern and requested correction."

While untangling the specifics of this debate would take an entire article, there's no doubt that jousting with ES&S and Hagel got Harris hooked on the topic. Although she couldn't interest mainstream publishers in the subject, David Allen, a former systems engineer turned comic-book publisher, became intrigued with her research. Soon, Harris had a contract with Allen's Plan Nine Publishing for the company's first non-comic book.

Publisher Allen's technical expertise proved to be vitally important. He urged Harris to get a copy of a technical manual for an electronic voting machine. Harris started surfing the Web. On Jan. 23, 2003, she hit the mother lode. On an unprotected Web site, she found 40,000 files of Diebold Election Systems' source code—the guts of software to run touch-screen voting machines. At first, Harris wasn't sure what all the weird files were, so she called Allen and directed him to the site. What are we looking at? she asked. "Incredible stupidity," he replied.

HARD ON THE SOFTWARE

Diebold is an Ohio-based company with more than $2 billion in annual revenue that was founded in 1859 and makes ATMs and security systems, among other things. In 2002, Diebold got into the election business when it bought Global Election Systems. Diebold is a relatively small player in the industry, with only 33,000 of its voting stations in use across the country, but it is coming on strong. In 2002, Diebold landed a $54 million contract from Georgia that included 19,000 new voting machines. The following year, Maryland signed a $55.6 million contract for 11,000 new machines.

Diebold, ES&S, and Sequoia are the big three companies making electronic voting machines. All of them refuse to let outside observers examine their software, citing proprietary and security concerns.

Harris' discovery represented the first opportunity for the wider world to glimpse the internal workings of the machines that are playing a key role in our democracy. After a little soul searching, Harris downloaded the Diebold software files. It took 44 hours, and they filled seven CDs. By July 2003, after months of informal review and discussion among her friends and allies, Harris decided to allow Scoop, an "unfiltered" news Web site in New Zealand (www.scoop.co.nz/mason), to make the files available to anyone who wanted them. It wasn't a decision she made lightly. "I knew I had something that could provoke a constitutional crisis," she says. She hoped that some computer science professors would take an interest.

COMPUTER SCIENTISTS were already hotly debating the issue. Stanford University's David Dill became interested in computer voting when the state of Georgia had technical problems with its new voting machines in 2002. When Dill discovered his own county, Santa Clara in California, was about to start using electronic voting machines without paper output, he swung into action. Dill started an online petition calling for a paper trail that attracted some of the nation's premier computer scientists. He put up a Web site that eventually became www.verifiedvoting.org and began speaking out about the issue around the country.

Harris' instincts about posting the source code proved to be dead-on. Four computer scientists from Maryland's prestigious Johns Hopkins University examined the code and released a scathing review of it. "Our analysis shows that this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts," their report stated.

While the Hopkins review did not cause political pandemonium, it did validate Harris' gut feelings about electronic voting—our votes were not secure because the software recording them was vulnerable to hacking. The report also attracted major media attention across the country.

Diebold spokesperson David Bear says, "Electronic voting is safe, secure, and accurate." Bear says the code that Harris found on the Internet was partial and outdated. In addition, Bear points out, the software is not used in a vacuum. Election officials use a variety of checks and balances with any system that they employ to ensure its security.

After the Hopkins report, the state of Maryland had a couple of consultants review the touch-screen machines and the way they will be deployed in elections. The consultants made some recommendations to increase security, but Maryland is proceeding with the elections using the Diebold equipment.

Touch-screen voting in the Washington, D.C., presidential primary in January: like an automated teller machine—but without the printed receipt.

(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

AUDIT TRAIL TO CALIFORNIA

Harris, however, was not done with Diebold. Last Sept. 5, someone leaked 15,000 internal Diebold memos to Harris. She says she published 24 of them on her own PR Web site and was promptly hit with a cease-and-desist letter from Diebold. Soon, all 15,000 of the memos were circulating on the Internet. Independent media sites around the world and students at more than 30 universities posted them. Diebold tried to stop the postings by claiming copyright on the memos and found itself entangled in a free-speech battle. Eventually, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, posted them on his congressional Web site. Diebold recognized that Kucinich held a trump card and withdrew its objections to the postings.

Sadly, the memos themselves have not been the subject of any thorough analysis. They are mostly e-mails from Diebold employees and are full of phrases that sound bad but are hard to understand without technical expertise and context.

Diebold's Bear says, "Those were internal discussions between individuals, not the sentiments of the company."

HARRIS THINKS the memos contain important revelations. Perhaps the most important, she argues, is that there is widespread use of uncertified software for voting machines of all kinds. Whether we vote on the new touch-screen system or the optical-scan paper ballots in use in King County and elsewhere, computer software counts our ballots. Harris believes a strict certification process where federal and state officials carefully test the election software is central to voting security. Without proper certification, she worries that improper code that would allow for the manipulation of election results might be introduced into the system.

By last Nov. 21, Kevin Shelley, California's secretary of state, had heard enough. He issued an order that all touch- screen voting machines include "an accessible voter verified paper audit trail." (Washington's Reed and Nevada's secretary of state, Dean Heller, came out in favor of audit trails in December.) The next month, Shelley commissioned an audit into whether uncertified Diebold software was being used in California's elections. Of the 17 California counties that used Diebold election machines in the last election, Shelley's auditors found, none was using software that had been properly certified by the state. Diebold insists that the changes made to the software are cosmetic. Shelley says the company might lose the right to sell its touch-screen machines in California.

All in all, 2003 was quite a year for Bev Harris. But she insists she is just getting started.

BACK IN THE REAL WORLD

In 2004, Harris and her allies have been working on four new fronts: lobbying, public speaking, litigation, and seeking public office.

At the start of this year's Washington Legislature, there were two bills about issues related to electronic voting. Harris and her ally, Linda Franz, another voting activist, introduced one with the help of legislators in both the House and the Senate. It died a relatively quick death, however.

The other bill, introduced by Secretary of State Reed, represented a big change in his position. Up until December, Reed and his office had strongly resisted any effort to require touch-screen voting machines to have a voter-verified audit trail. Reed says that as he toured the state talking with ordinary voters, he realized there was a lot of anxiety about the new electronic voting. He has seen this phenomenon before, he says, when other new voting technology—like the optical scan paper ballot—was introduced. "It was one thing to hear from a few people on the Internet," he says, "but we found ordinary citizens didn't trust these machines."

Harris and her allies, however, are furious opponents of Reed's bill. They say it leaves the door open for insecure Internet voting, takes too long to require a paper trail with touch-screen voting machines, and has an insufficient audit requirement and a host of other ills. "You have a secretary of state that crafts legislation that sounds good but doesn't deliver," says Franz.

Bev Harris' right-hand man, Democrat Andy Stephenson, is running for secretary of state, challenging incumbent Republican Sam Reed with fiery rhetoric.

(Karen Steichen)

REED IS RELUCTANT to engage in a debate with Harris and her allies. He says he hasn't seen their bill and downplays the differences between himself and them. He offers only the mildest criticism and says on the whole their activism has been helpful. He does object to the way they have verbally roughed up elections officials like Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger. "Bob has been on radio shows with Bev Harris. I fortunately haven't had that experience," he says, laughing.

As of Tuesday, March 9, the fate of Reed's legislation was still up in the air.

Longtime voting-rights activist Janet Anderson questions the wisdom of head-on, fierce opposition to Reed and his bill by Harris and her allies. "The secretary of state changed his position 180 degrees. Instead of being supportive, they are making it clear they don't trust him."

In fact, Harris' right-hand man is running against Reed. Andy Stephenson met Harris through Democratic Underground, a left-wing Web site (www.democraticunderground.com), and they immediately became close cohorts. Stephenson, 42, looks like a shorter, stockier version of talk-show host Conan O'Brien, and until recently he owned the Subway shop on 15th Avenue on Seattle's Capitol Hill. As a former telephone salesperson, he has skills that Harris lacks: He's great on the phone or talking one-on-one with people.

Stephenson is running a fiery campaign against Reed. "The secretary of state is accountable to no one," he charges. His campaign for elected office suffers from a flaw common among impassioned rookies, however: He believes his issue will be enough against seasoned politicians like Reed and Democratic Party favorite state Rep. Laura Ruderman, D-Kirkland, who have name identification with voters and will raise much more money and receive much more institutional support than Stephenson will.

HARRIS HASN'T endorsed Stephenson because she doesn't endorse candidates. But it's clear Harris likes him and his tactics, which include filing a lawsuit against Reed for allowing the use of uncertified software in King County. The secretary of state's office denies the charge. Meanwhile, Harris is a plaintiff in a California lawsuit that seeks to end use of Diebold equipment in that state. She and Stephenson promise more lawsuits in other states, including Washington.

The partisan, rancorous nature of Stephenson's campaign concerns veteran activist Anderson. "I don't like it when people start speaking in partisan terms, because we all want honest, safe, secure elections. To turn it into partisan name-calling turns off half the people."

At a recent forum, Stephenson, who is charming tête-à-tête, looked extremely uncomfortable while making an awkward stump speech. As if to emphasize the protest nature of his candidacy, he endorsed dark-horse presidential candidate Kucinich.

RHETORICAL ROAR

Harris, on the other hand, is a marvelous speaker. As a PR professional, she knows how to present her material in a personable, funny way. She hopes to use public speaking tours as another weapon in her arsenal and took her act on the road to California this month.

The tone of Harris' rhetoric disturbs Anderson. "Bev Harris is a little more conspiracy-oriented than I tend to be. I don't believe this is a huge Republican plot to steal elections," she says. "Maybe the whole matter would have been taken more seriously earlier had not the highly partisan charges been made so shrilly."

That kind of criticism angers Harris. But there's no doubt some of her claims have lacked substantiation. Near the end of Black Box Voting, she writes: "There are some who are using election-manipulation techniques to transfer a block of power to their friends. This is a business plan, a form of organized crime. . . . " Yet Harris rejects any claim she is a conspiracy theorist. "I understand the needs of the press in terms of documentation and not overstating your case," she says, and she has worked to scale back the hype in her writing.

Yet at a recent forum at the University of Washington, the more outrageous Harris' rhetoric got, the more the audience loved it. One key to Harris' success has been her in-your-face style. That characteristic, which brought early success, might not resonate with everyone. She isn't confident of victory in any case. "Actually, it is going to be a long shot that we will win this battle on voting machines," Harris says. "We have proven our case, but they are still just barreling ahead."

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus