Better late than never

The Washington Post finally reports — a month after it happened — about the dramatic public demonstration that the vote counts coming out of Diebold opscan machines have no necessary connection to the votes going in to Diebold opscan machines.

The Washington Post breaks the virtual Big Media embargo on the news that Diebold’s optical-scanning voting equipment turns out to be almost trivially easy to hack.

As the Leon County supervisor of elections, Ion Sancho’s job is to make sure voting is free of fraud. But the most brazen effort lately to manipulate election results in this Florida locality was carried out by Sancho himself.

Four times over the past year Sancho told computer specialists to break in to his voting system. And on all four occasions they did, changing results with what the specialists described as relatively unsophisticated hacking techniques. To Sancho, the results showed the vulnerability of voting equipment manufactured by Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems, which is used by Leon County and many other jurisdictions around the country.

Sancho’s most recent demonstration was last month. Harri Hursti, a computer security expert from Finland, manipulated the “memory card” that records the votes of ballots run through an optical scanning machine.

Then, in a warehouse a few blocks from his office in downtown Tallahassee, Sancho and seven other people held a referendum. The question on the ballot:

“Can the votes of this Diebold system be hacked using the memory card?”

Two people marked yes on their ballots, and six no. The optical scan machine read the ballots, and the data were transmitted to a final tabulator. The result? Seven yes, one no.

Of course, that’s deja lu to anyone who’s been reading the BlackBoxVoting website. As the Post story notes, Harri Hursti’s dramatic public demonstration took place more than a month ago. It’s good to know that neither the Post nor its competitors feels any childish impulse to report the news first, or even while it’s still new.

Of course, we all know that anyone who thinks that the votes as counted in 2004 were different enough from the votes as cast to turn the election results around is paranoid. But, in light of the Florida test, and the density of Diebold machines in Ohio, I’d like to be reminded just how we know that.

Update It looks as if Alaska had some serious vote-counting problems. No one in his right mind thinks Kerry carried Alaska, but the Alaska Senate race was heartbreakingly close: Murkowski saved her seat by fewer than 10,000 votes.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: