The story of electronic voting machines, and the company that makes many of them, continues to roll along. I wrote in a column a few weeks back (Beware E-Voting, 20 November 2003, Far Eastern Economic Review; subscription required) about Bev Harris, a 52-year old grandmother from near Seattle, who discovered 40,000 computer files at the website of a Diebold Inc subsidiary, Global Elections Systems Inc, beginning a public campaign against a company she believed was responsible for a seriously flawed e-voting system., already in use in several states.
Anyway, now she’s turned up more explosive material, it seems. The Associated Press yesterday quoted her as saying that managers of Global Elections Systems “included a cocaine trafficker, a man who conducted fraudulent stock transactions, and a programmer jailed for falsifying computer records”. The programmer, Jeffrey Dean, AP reports, wrote and maintained proprietary code used to count hundreds of thousands of votes as senior vice president of Global Election Systems Inc. Previously, according to a public court document released before GES hired him, Dean served time in a Washington correctional facility for stealing money and tampering with computer files in a scheme that “involved a high degree of sophistication and planning.”
Needless to say this is all somewhat worrying. When I followed the story I tried to concern myself merely with the technological aspects, which were pretty worrying in themselves; The e-voting system being pushed by Diebold seemed to have too many security flaws to be usable in its present state. But Ms. Harris’ digging seems to reveal a company that is, to put it tactfully, less than thorough in its background checks.
So what’s Diebold’s version? AP quoted a company spokesman as saying that the company performs background checks on all managers and programmers. He also said many GES managers left at the time of the acquisition. “We can’t speak for the hiring process of a company before we acquired it”. Acccording to Ms. Harris’ website, however, that’s misleading. Quoting a memo issued shortly after Diebold bought GES in early 2002, Dean had “elected to maintain his affiliation with the company in a consulting role”. Diebold, the memo says, “greatly values Jeff’s contribution to this business and is looking forward to his continued expertise in this market place”. AP said Dean could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon and I cannot find any subsequent report online.
It’s hard to see how Diebold is going to recover from what has been a series of body blows to its credibility in such a sensitive field as voting. The same day as Ms. Harris revealed her latest bombshell, the company announced “a complete restructuring of the way the company handles qualification and certification processes for its software, hardware and firmware”. Diebold hopes the announcement will “ensure the public’s confidence that all of our hardware, software and firmware products are fully certified and qualified by all of the appropriate federal, state and local authorities prior to use in any election”.
Clearly the whole fracas has done serious damage to public confidence in electronic voting. But it’s important to keep perspective. There’s nothing wrong intrinsically with e-voting — it’s a sensible way to speed up the process, make it easier for citizens and, perhaps, to extend the use of such mechanisms to allow the population to have a greater and more regular say in how their lives are governed. But like every technological innovation, it’s got to be done right, by the right people, with the right checks and balances built in, and it can’t be done quickly and shoddily. Most importantly, it’s got to be done transparently, and those involved in building the machines must never be allowed to conceal their incompetence by preventing others from inspecting their work and assessing its worthiness.
For details of Ms. Harris allegations, check out her website Blackbox Voting. A summary of the press conference is here, as are the supporting documents (both PDF files.)