Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Adjusting the Vote

I was too ill to perform my duty as the Democratic observer at the Harris County central counting office last week, so at the last minute I asked John Behrman to stand in for me. And look what he saw:

The county Web site already showed that all precinct totals had been counted; three sheriff's deputies who guarded the counting process on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building in downtown Houston had been sent home.

Also in the locked, glass-walled room were Republican (Harris County Clerk Beverley) Kaufman and John R. Behrman, a computer expert and longtime election observer representing the Democratic Party. He said he considers Kaufman's staff the most knowledgeable election computer administrators on the continent and does not question their motives.

But Behrman said he was shocked when he saw (county elections administrator Johnnie) German use a series of passwords and an "encryption key" — a series of numbers on a nail file-size computer memory storage device — to reach a computer program that said "Adjustment."

"A hundred percent of precincts reporting, and everything had been distributed to the press," he said. "Then and only then did I see how they were going to do this, and frankly I never thought it was possible.

"Basically it turns out, without regard to any ballots that have been cast, you can enter arbitrary numbers in there and report them out in such a way that, unless you go back to these giant (computer) logs and interpret the logs, you wouldn't know it has been done."

Hart InterCivic has converted nearly the entire state of Texas to e-Slates. What do you think the security of your ballot might be in a rural county -- where there ain't too many folks who know much 'bout computers?

But the real value is in the largest counties in the state, where manipulating the tally -- say, in an $800 million bond election -- has a chance for a real payoff. For a few insiders.

Who needs to hack the vote when you can just bribe a county elections official?

Why do you think several states have decertified Hart InterCivic's e-Slates for use?

And it's easy to understand the nonchalance of Republican officials and Republican-appointed judges, but why do you suppose it is that Houston's Democrat mayor (and rumored candidate for governor in 2010) , Bill White, doesn't really care about this problem?

Update (11/15): Charles Kuffner digs deeper, including this comment from Rice professor Dan Wallach, one of the country's foremost authorities on voting machine technology:

So, indeed, Hart has multiple lines of defense. Unfortunately, every one of them is incorrectly engineered, rendering the system entirely vulnerable to compromise. Of course, I am not stating that any such compromise has ever happened in Harris County. What I am saying is that the design of the Hart system is entirely insufficient to prevent such attacks, should a competent attacker wish to make them.

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