HBO’s Hacking Democracy

We’re as confident as anyone can be.

–Marjorie Roher, of the Montgomery County, Md., Board of Elections, on the functionality of electronic voting systems (Newsweek 13 November 2006)

I think the mainstream press on Election Day is so concerned with calling the winners and losers that they lose sight of the voters.

–Ian Inaba (Gary Moskowitz, “This Time, The Election Will Not Be Stolen,” Alternet 4 November 2006)

People have the right to know how their democracy — America’s democracy — works. Or doesn’t.

–Russell Michaels (Interview 2006)

American citizens are headed to polls on Tuesday, 7 November. Some 40 percent of their midterm election votes will be counted electronically, that is, by touch-screens and counters supplied by private contractors like Diebold. Questions about the machines, which leave no paper trails by which to judge their accuracy, have been raised since before they were paid for and installed, to the point that Governor Ehrlich of Maryland has encouraged voters to vote by paper, in the form of absentee ballots. So many Maryland voters have applied for these ballots, however, that the state risks not having enough to service them.

This is but one grim scenario emerging from the turn to electronic counting machines. No doubt, election fraud and corruption have been perpetrated in the past — dead people voting, multiple votes cast by the same people, voter intimidation, and “lost” ballots — electronic systems make problems at once more and less manifest. Literally, no one can see what happens inside one of those counters, and so, voters must trust the technology to behave.

But such trust is neither foregone nor warranted in “America, the world’s greatest democracy,” so described at the beginning of HBO’s Hacking Democracy (which premiered on 2 November). The documentary opens with a U.S. flag waving against a bright blue sky, as narrator James Naughton asks, “How do you know if the vote is counted correctly? And if you don’t know, then what have you got? Democracy?” The film follows the investigation into such questions by Black Box Voting founder Bev Harris, a writer and grandmother from Seattle. The group’s work is ground-up, including confrontations with election officials and dumpster-diving for voting tapes they’ve been told don’t exist. And their findings are chilling.

Sweet-faced and utterly determined, Harris explains that her worries about voting and counting were ignited during the 2000 U.S. presidential election. (She’s also married to a black man, she notes, who encouraged her to follow up, as it was not so long ago that the vote was not a right for everyone.) As the film shows George Bush and Al Gore greeting one another in a snowy wind, the narrator reveals that in Volusia County, Florida, a computer was found to be counting “Al Gore’s totals backwards” (such that he received -16,022 votes). An investigation revealed that these negative votes could not have been the result of “machine failure,” as a second memory card may have been loaded into the computer. With no records available, the answer to this particular puzzle will never be known.

Other questions arise. Harris learns that the voting machines industry — primarily Diebold, Sequoia, and ES&S — keeps secrets, apparently by definition. “It’s a secret how [the machines] work,” she says, “The code is supposed to be a secret, and certification labs keep it a secret.” And so she goes looking for information, beginning with a simple search engine query into three words: “voting machines” and “glitch.” When she finds reports of thousands of errors and complaints, Harris pushes on, discovering a Diebold FTP site that lets her download some 40 hours worth of software (what Harris calls the “crown jewels for Diebold Election Systems”). Interviewed by the British Channel Four News in February 2004, Diebold Marketing Director Mark Radke calls this “an unfortunate situation,” not exactly an explanation of how it could happen and what it says about the “security” of the systems.

Hacking Democracy is full of such moments, when authorities — election officials or corporate representatives — are essentially caught with their pants down and lie outright or offer utterly implausible explanations. Harris asks systems security analyst Avi Rubin to download and check the Diebold software, whereupon he’s stunned at the porousness of the code, understating, “It was a pretty significant system hole.” This even though all such software is legally bound to be tested by ITAs (Independent Testing Authorities).

When the voting machine companies are less than forthcoming about the lack of testing, Harris borrows a page from Jack Anderson (for whom she used to work) and starts going through their trash, as well as that of “their customers, the counties.” She’s handed polling tapes that are, as Harris calls them, “minty fresh,” printed out just for her and other activists, including Susan Pynchon and Cleveland’s Kathleen Wynne. Told that the originals are missing, they go through the elections office trash, where — lo! — they find the missing tapes.

The film — which Diebold has asked HBO to pull, for its “inaccurate reporting” — follows Harris from Volusia County, Florida (described by Andy Stevenson, another Black Box Voting member, as the “home of the negative vote totals”) to California to Cuyahoga County, Ohio (where a set-up shot of wind and snow implies a dire situation). Again and again, Harris and crew document their own activities to ensure proof of official pronouncements (say, that a memory card does not contain executable code, even though experts who examined it said otherwise) and so be able to challenge them later.

Whether or not the strategy is effective remains unknown. The documentary doesn’t show confrontations using such footage. It does show that bringing other sorts of challenges can be risky. So recalls Ohio’s Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, who learned a lesson in 2004, when she and Barbara Boxer objected to the presidential vote in that state. “You would have thought that I shot somebody in the head and that I wanted something terrible,” recalls Tubbs-Jones, as footage of responses from Republican Congressmen shows how her concerns were dismissed out of hand (J.D. Hayworth accuses her of planting “the insidious seeds of doubt in the process,” as if her action is the problem, father than the process).

The documentary winds up with a test designed by Harri Hursti, a computer security analyst, which demonstrates that a memory card of the sort used by Diebold misreports votes. While this and a few other scenes in the film are accompanied by spooky music and shot by unsettling mobile camerawork, the point is clear enough without such overkill. Whether vote-counting inaccuracies result from malicious intent or ineptitude, the fact that either can happen easily gives pause. With all the money, time, and supposed expertise put into “fixing” a system that was so manifestly broken in recent elections, substantive changes would seem in order. Instead, doubts about the system continue to grow.

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See also Fight The Power? American Blackout

RATING 7 / 10