Calvin Thomas in West Virginia claims to have witnessed a touch-screen machine malfunction that assigned his vote to John McCain as opposed to Barack Obama - his intended choice. (Photo: Eric Thayer / The New York Times)
Last Friday, a federal court judge in Cleveland, Ohio, ordered Michael Connell, an information-technology consultant to the McCain '08 campaign, to give a deposition in a court proceeding. Mr. Connell, whose firm, GovTech Solutions, built Ohio's 2004 election results computer network, was in a position to have knowledge about the alleged manipulation of electronic voting results in that presidential contest (a technique known as "flipping") in order to switch the winner in Ohio from Sen. John Kerry to President Bush. The deposition is scheduled to take place today, November 3, one day before the 2008 general election.
Connell is a former associate of Karl Rove, who is believed by those familiar with the events in question to have engaged in witness intimidation to prevent testimony about what happened in Ohio in 2004. They also believe that IT companies associated with the Republican Party have redeveloped the capacity to manipulate electronic voting results in Tuesday's election, both within Ohio and outside, including Pennsylvania and other key battleground states such as Colorado and New Mexico. One such firm, Triad GSI, is managing voter registration databases in 55 of Ohio's 88 counties and is hosting 25 of those databases.
All this has led to speculation that the McCain campaign's insistence that they can win Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states, despite being (in some places, significantly) behind in most of the polls, could be prompted by having been informed about planned cyber interference with electronic voting results. The reality is that a successful cyber attack only requires a few skilled IT experts with an in-depth understanding of digital security. Election returns in many states are presently emailed from local databases for statewide consolidation, without even the standard safeguards routinely used by banks and corporations. In other words, voting data can be relatively easily hacked.
The lawsuit in Ohio is being pursued as a violation of voting rights laws, and it claims that Connell witnessed a "kingpin" cyber attack on electronic voting results in several Ohio counties, the consequence of which was to give the 2004 national election to Bush (had Kerry won Ohio, he would have won the election). Serious statistical anomalies in several Ohio counties' election returns, as well as a shocking disconnect between exit polls and actual results in '04 in Ohio, have never been explained. Despite being urged by his running mate John Edwards to do so, Kerry declined to take legal action in Ohio.
The suspicions by some Democratic operatives about impending Republican interference with electronic voting in 2008 have been further fueled by the sustained bellicosity of Republican spokespeople about voter registration errors by ACORN, believing that exaggerations of the ACORN problem have been encouraged by those involved in the Republicans' own covert e-voting fraud in order to distract the media from recent news about the possibility of this far graver threat to the integrity of American elections.
The general news media are doing a serious disservice to the cause of vigilance about honest elections by having, so far, neglected the case involving one of the McCain campaign's consultants on digital technology. It would be a travesty of historic proportions if Sen. Barack Obama won the national popular vote for president by a large margin, but lost the Electoral College narrowly because of electronic voting manipulation in two or three states.
The current legal action will obviously not be resolved in time to determine the possible extent of any effort to manipulate electronic voting in 2008. But poll workers, campaign activists and local supporters of Senator Obama can do a number of practical things in order to identify and compile evidence of anomalies which may signal digital manipulation of election returns:
1. Local activists and lawyers in any state where the vote appears close should demand that county voting officials where electronic voting systems are used should, if possible, unplug their servers from the Internet and phone in their results, and otherwise never permit external IT consultants to have unsupervised physical access to hard drives after vote counting commences.
2. Screen captures of all television-reported exit poll numbers on all networks should be obtained for every state for which they are reported, to later compare them to actual vote tallies when they are reported - and the networks should assign a staff person to perform such checks. Any significant deviations from statewide exit polls in counties that don't have demographic factors to account for such differences should be flagged for later investigation.
3. Vote totals for presidential and down-ballot candidates should be compared, precinct-by-precinct and county-by-county, to see if there are strange disparities. In 2004, a Democratic candidate for a judgeship in Ohio mysteriously received tens of thousands more votes than John Kerry (even though many voters never bother to vote for down-ballot candidates). This was a statistical improbability of enormous magnitude (no disrespect meant to the judge).
4. Vote totals in safe Republican counties should be compared to the past two election cycles, to see whether any sky-high turnout is historically unprecedented and therefore cause for suspicion. That is what happened in several Republican-dominated counties in Florida in 2004. Election monitors should also watch the traffic at the polling places in Republican precincts, and maintain careful records, as a way to gauge the honesty of later claims about the turnout there.
These steps are necessary to facilitate the discovery of any circumstantial or direct evidence of possible manipulation of electronic-voting returns, which would be sufficient to enable immediate legal action to prevent certification of election results. In turn, that would permit time for a full forensic investigation. Additionally, many citizens' groups are preparing calls to action should legal remedies to any attempted vote interference falter or be obstructed.
There is ample cause for general alarm and for the measures we've recommended, in what has emerged from the ongoing court action in Ohio. If evidence of electronic-voting manipulation follows the election tomorrow, it must be pursued regardless of who wins. And if the campaigns involved do not challenge the results where this evidence emerges, or if local and state authorities do not cooperate to resolve these questions, it is certain that a tidal wave of protest will develop. Nonviolent resistance was used successfully by African-Americans to win their civil rights in the 1960s, and earlier by American women to win the right to vote. Millions would not hesitate to use it again, if there is evidence of a stolen presidential election.
The first Democratic president, Thomas Jefferson, said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." The failure of the Bush administration to permit systematic reform of this nation's elections infrastructure so as to make it impossible for these manipulations to occur is bad enough. Even worse would be to refuse to take seriously the possibility that these abuses could alter or adulterate the results of what may well be the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.
For more information on electronic voter interference and the above-cited legal action see:
Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University. Ange-Marie Hancock is associate professor of political science at University of Southern California. David McCuan is associate professor of political science at Sonoma State University. Mark Crispin Miller is professor of media studies at New York University. Michael Nagler is professor emeritus at University of California at Berkeley.