Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Did a County Hack the Vote to Favor Developers?

There was a surprising result in an election in Pima County Arizona in 2006. There was a referendum on raising taxes to pay for $2 billion dollars in transportation bonds favored by developers. The measure passed despite trailing in pre-election polls and being defeated in prior attempts. The Tucson county is being taken to court to force a full investigation of the election results.

The Pima County Board of Elections will not conduct a full and complete audit of the election. Pima County is being sued by the local Democratic Party in an effort to force an examination of the voter database and electronic poll tabulator records. Pima County is vigorously protesting revealing any information on how secure the vote is and was. Other knowledge being sought is comparisons between database records and precinct records, detailed knowledge on how the system works, how easy an official can access and change the database and the programs, and all possible audit trails and machine access records.

There is a sworn statement that a long-time county official accessed the database with copies of precinct tally records before results were announced.

Steven Rosenfeld:
The county's Democratic Party and local election integrity activists believe pro-growth local officials may have tampered with the electronic vote count to win. They have sworn evidence a long-time county employee who tallies the electronic vote totals took home backup tapes of the 2006 vote and accessed those vote count files before the official election results were announced. It is seeking the complete electronic voting record to determine if vote count fraud occurred.

"We are asking to get a database," said William Risner, attorney for the Election Integrity Committee of the Pima Democratic Party. "It is not our goal (in this trial) to attempt to prove that anything has happened. We want the data that would help us show that. What we are trying to do is establish our right to get the data and do an analysis. And certainly the fact they are fighting tooth and nail suggests that they have something to hide."

Pima County officials say the election records are not public documents and releasing them could actually reveal ways for partisans or the public to alter future vote counts.

"If the Pima Democratic Party or any member of the public gets access to that programming information, they could affect the outcome of an election," said Amelia Cramer, Pima County's chief deputy attorney.

The litigation brought by the Pima County Democrats raises many issues that will be relevant for the 2008 presidential election, when much of the country will be voting on electronic voting systems. In the first instance, the suit highlights that electronic voting records are often withheld from public view until long after winners have been declared and recounts and other legal challenges have ended. There is no nationwide standard.

....Risner said he suspects the $2 billion transportation bond, which was opposed by the public in several past elections but favored by developers, could have been heading for defeat in 2006 -- and that would have been seen in glimpses of early results by county election officials. That knowledge could have prompted an election staffer to alter the vote-counting software to change the election outcome, he said.

"What is important politically here is the growth industry with the new subdivisions and land speculators," Risner said. "When you are looking at a simple flip reversal (of the voting results), one of the ways to do that is just simply have the machines read 'yes' votes as 'no' votes, and vice versa."
It is extremely easy to change the votes in the personal computer programs that tabulate county and state level votes if you have access to the computers. This was shown in Houston on the legal hack-the-vote demonstration to correct election mistakes. This does not require some complex computer expert hacking - just access to the computer and a little knowledge which a high level election insider could have. This is also the most direct threat to fair elections, dishonest county officials, not the almost nonexistent illegal voters.

If you are a candidate in a heated race with a close result demand a full audit recount, comparing precinct machine totals to the database and do not accept just a database and provisional ballot recount.

It has also been demonstrated on TV and film it takes a minute to change votes without leaving an audit trail on the almost universally used GEM system. The film Hacking Democracy demonstrated numerous ways to change and hack election results taking just a few minutes or less. The one I find most compelling is a county official bypassing the Gem software and changing the ACCESS database file directly. Quick, easy, no audit trail. Some counties are now disabling ACCESS on PC's containing the vote-counting software but a Visual Basic program would also work. This could have easily been prevented by securing or encrypting the data but the systems seemed designed to be easily hacked. The film also documents county officials in Florida and Ohio violating federal law on 2004 election recounts.

Who votes controls nothing, the one who counts the votes controls everything. Open source software, encrypted and secure vote totals, and transparent vote counting procedures are needed now.

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