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We're Sorry

By Annalee Newitz

PEOPLE KEEP asking me if the election was hacked. Usually it's with a plaintive note in their voices, or in one of those slightly wistful, slightly paranoid emails full of obsessive links to progressive websites. Look, I don't want it to be true that Bush won either. But I'm afraid there just isn't any evidence that nefarious right-wing hackers stole the election by gumming up the machines in Ohio or anywhere else with fake votes.

There were a lot of problems with E-voting machines, according to organizations like Verified Voting Foundation (VVF) and the Election Protection Commission. These groups, along with several others, organized thousands of volunteers to take calls from voters and poll workers who reported problems on election day via the toll-free 1.866.OUR.VOTE number. These calls revealed that thousands of votes were miscast on touch-screen machines that crashed or registered the wrong candidate. But we're talking about thousands of problems reported, not the hundreds of thousands you'd expect to see if the wrong candidate had been elected. Granted, there may have been thousands more unreported problems. But without evidence, we can't say that for sure.

Moreover, the evidence that these groups do have shows a pattern of problems with the machines that looks more like what you'd expect from shitty equipment than from deliberate hacks. The devices crashed; they had to be rebooted multiple times; they wouldn't start; some had the wrong ballots. People of all political persuasions reported serious problems in every single state using E-voting machines. And these kinds of problems popped up in every type of machine being used. A hack would have to be written for one specific type of machine, so you'd expect to see the same problem repeatedly in the same make and model of device. That's not what we saw.

What we saw were people who were disenfranchised because their voting machines were designed so poorly--and the poll workers trained so quickly--that the devices couldn't be used. And we saw situations where people questioned the outcome of the elections in states like Ohio, but the vote couldn't be recounted because most touch-screen machines don't leave a paper trail.

Now that the election is over, groups like VVF and Common Cause are asking citizens to lobby their county elections officials to perform tests conducted by independent computer security experts on the voting machines used in the recent elections. These tests probably won't reveal that the election has been hacked--again, sorry!--but they will demonstrate how crappy-ass the machines are and may push elections officials to get better devices (especially ones that create a paper audit trail!). Another thing we'll learn from independent testing is how easy it might be for somebody to hack the election next time.

I voted in San Francisco on an E-voting machine that I consider ideal. It's called an optical-scan machine, and it works sort of like one of those scantron fill-in-the-bubble tests you might have used in school. I got several ballot sheets packed with choices on every race and every weird ballot measure California had thrown at me. Using a plain old felt-tip pen, I filled in a box next to the candidates of my choice and picked yes or no for each proposition. When I was done, I checked the whole thing over to make sure I hadn't done anything stupid. Then I stuck the ballots into a scanning machine that saved my choices to memory. The machine spat out my ballots when it was done, and I watched the poll worker put them in a locked box. I had the benefit of getting my votes counted quickly by a computer while also having a paper trail that I knew was correct. If it came to a recount, I knew for sure that my votes would be recounted as cast.

Most people using E-voting machines in this past election weren't so lucky. And that's why a cloud of doubt will always hang over the outcome, no matter how much evidence we accumulate. How can voters trust an election process in which accurate recounts are impossible? I believe that Bush won the election without hacking E-voting machines. But that doesn't mean the process that allowed him to get elected was fair or trustworthy.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who hopes that now you'll stop sending her emails about how 'they' stole the election.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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