Monday, April 21, 2014

The GOP voter fraud campaign is a ruse

For a few years now, we have seen concerted efforts by the GOP to deal with what they claim to be a voter fraud problem. Never mind that almost every study on the subject of voter fraud shows the problem to be either negligible or non-existent in every place they've cared to look.

What I find most interesting is that the GOP has almost completely ignored the voting machines and tabulation systems in any discussion of fraud in elections. Many of the voting machines in use are made by Diebold, and during the 2004 election cycle, there was some news about the CEO of Diebold promising to deliver the votes to the GOP. I guess the GOP didn't feel like the voting machines were a huge problem then and they sure don't seem all that concerned about them now.

But if I were the one calling for better detection of voter fraud, I wouldn't be looking at the voters. I'd be looking at the voting machines and the tabulation systems that gather votes. In fact, I'd be calling for an open source end to end solution, for vote collection and tabulation. Why?

Computer science researchers often find flaws in our voting machines such as security vulnerabilities, programming errors and seemingly intentional flaws have all been found in our voting machines. Take Diebold for example. Their systems run an embedded version of Windows. As far back as 2006, Princeton University researchers ran tests on Diebold machines to show how easy it is to steal an election.

Diebold has demonstrated significant partisan practices in the past as well, with other executives openly supporting George Bush for his 2004 re-election campaign. It is not likely that Diebold is the only company out there with a vested interest in steering elections their way, the practice may be widespread and bipartisan.

After the 2010 Census, many Republican majorities in state legislatures got busy redistricting their states to their advantage. But that wasn't enough for them, it seems. They have also been working hard to limit voter access to the polls, cutting the number of early voting days available and voting hours and polling places. They have also loosened restrictions on observers at the polls, allowing them to challenge voters at the polling places. Their tactics are well documented with a few examples here, here and here. But if voter fraud is so rare, why is it a problem now?

Considering the rarity of voter fraud, the GOP voter fraud campaign seems more like a ruse to divert attention from a potentially far bigger problem. From what I can gather, all of the voting machines are proprietary - the code is secret, it all runs on Windows in some form or another and it's subject to serious security flaws that have yet to be addressed. Why the GOP (or the Democrats) does not have a laser focus on voting machine integrity is beyond me.

There are several very interesting websites that have reviewed the election process in detail, two of which I'd like to bring to your attention now. First there is Blackboxvoting.org. This is an all-around voting issues website that looks at all aspects of election transparency, including voting machines. It's a great place to get an overview or go into details on any aspect of elections and how they work. Note also that this website looks at elections worldwide.

The second site is Open Source Voting. This site is dedicated to using open source software, machines and open standards to create an accurate, transparent and accountable election system that is not easily susceptible to fraud. This technology is not pie-in-the-sky. It is here now, and has been demonstrated to show how practical it is.

Open source voting may seem like a vague concept, but there are three main benefits that I see here. First, with open source code, anyone can look at the code to see what it actually does. The source code for voting machines and tabulation systems should be open source and available for any citizen to see and to submit improvements if flaws are found. System images used for installing a voting machine operating system and software can be verified by hashing with MD5 or SHA1. What this means is that a signature is created so that each and every machine can be verified to have the same code on disk before and after the election.

Second, open source hardware means that any manufacturer can create the hardware as long as it meets a reference specification. A reference specification is similar to what IBM did with the PC more than 30 years ago. The first PC was built by IBM, but IBM allowed others to create clones by releasing a specification and design that anyone else could follow, build and sell. If all the election machines are based on the same hardware specification, it becomes easy to ensure that all the voting machines required for an election are deployed where they are needed. No need to create 8 hour lines when machines are easy to build, certify and deploy from a variety of manufacturers.

The third benefit is open standards. All machines can be required to generate output that conforms to open standards so that anyone can build the software that produces and reads the information generated by the voters. An example of an open standard is the PDF, the Portable Document Format created by Adobe. To promote the utilization of PDF, Adobe released the specification as an open standard and then Adobe created a committee that manages and publishes the standard. Anyone can write software that creates PDFs, as long as the resulting document conforms to the PDF standard. With open standards, we can avoid the vendor lock-in that vendors like Diebold seek and enjoy when they can get a government hooked on their machines. Using open standards will also make it easier for observers to verify that results are accurate during the entire chain of custody for voting records.

The voter suppression campaign perpetrated by the GOP in Congress and in state legislatures across the country seems designed to misdirect public attention from the problem of election fraud to voter fraud. Simple logic dictates that voter fraud on a massive scale is difficult to organize and execute without detection. But if someone wants to steal an election, gaining control of the voting machines and tabulation software would provide a far greater chance of success without detection, a fact that few politicians are willing to acknowledge on camera.
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