Joe Conason's Journal

Why aren't Republicans more disturbed by the threat of computer cheating?

Published October 27, 2003 4:54PM (EST)

Newsweek looks into black-box voting
This fall, at every venue I visit to sign books and talk about politics, at least one worried citizen asks whether I believe rogue computer software can steal the next election for the Republicans. Others nod, murmur, and wonder aloud: What can we do about this threat to democracy? Why should we vote or encourage others to vote when the system can be gamed? How do we convince the mainstream media to cover this crucial story?

Web journalists have been probing the real and potential problems of electronic voting most notably on Black Box and Black Box, the Web sites Bev Harris runs, and in Salon -- but it is true that major media outlets have devoted little attention to the possibility that future elections could be untraceably rigged. Today, Newsweek tech reporter Steven Levy examines that dire prospect in the magazine's Nov. 3 issue. As he explains:

"After you punch the buttons to choose your candidates, you may get a final screen that reflects your choices -- but there's no way to tell that those choices are the ones that ultimately get reported in the final tally. You simply have to trust that the software inside the machine is doing its job ... The best minds in the computer-security world contend that the voting terminals can't be trusted."

And although Levy refers to "conspiracy theories" buzzing around the Internet, he lends some credence to suspicions focused on the Diebold company, whose CEO Walden O'Dell is a partisan Republican and Bush fundraiser who says he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president next year."

Bolstering such concerns are the findings of top computer-security experts such as Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins and David Dill of Stanford. Rubin, who was given a copy of the Diebold voting computers' source code several months ago, has declared its protections against fraud to be worthless. Dill told Newsweek that the risk of a stolen election is "extremely high."

The sickening irony of this situation is that it developed from congressional efforts to preclude another fiasco like Florida 2000. Now Rep. Rush Holt, D.-N.J., has proposed legislation that would require a separate printed record of every computerized vote so that recounts can be audited with a paper trail. But Rep. Bob Ney, the committee chairman, opposes Holt's Voter Confidence Act. Ney happens to be a Republican from Ohio. But why aren't Republicans -- many of whom fret incessantly about "ballot security" in black and Latino neighborhoods -- more disturbed by the threat of computer cheating?

This hectic life, among the pumpkins
Still on tour, I will be in South Hadley, Mass., on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. to sign copies of "Big Lies" at Odyssey Books. By Friday at 8 p.m., I'll be observing Halloween in Iowa City, Iowa, at Prairie Lights bookstore.
[2:30 p.m. PDT, Oct. 27, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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