Rage against the machines.

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Nov. 3 2004 7:34 PM

Rage Against the Machines

The Web wonders if electronic voting machines stole the election.

By recent standards, George W. Bush's 2004 presidential election victory was remarkably uncontroversial. Not only did he win both the popular and electoral votes, but, with a couple of exceptions, voting went relatively smoothly nationwide. So, were all those fears about evil vote-machine companies stealing the election unfounded? And what about those dire prognostications about the dangers of electronic voting machines that don't have paper trails? (For a comprehensive, non-partisan background on the perils and benefits of e-voting, check out Wired's archive here.)

Well, according to e-voting haters and some bloggers, the fact that the election went smoothly is no comfort—the whole problem with electronic voting is that someone could swoop in and change votes without anyone having a clue.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

It didn't take a hacker to find some of yesterday's alleged problems, though. Matt Drudge fired off one of the most worrisome reports Tuesday morning, claiming that machines in Philadelphia already had votes on them when the polls opened. It turns out that Drudge's story simply wasn't true. The AP's rundown of problems nationwide includes Kerry voters who said they were asked on the final screen to verify that they had voted for President Bush. The Prospect also describes this phenomenon, which, a witness says, led to machines being unplugged and voters having to recast their ballots.

The fact that the race hinged on Ohio inspired some conspiracy-minded folk to remember Diebold Chairman and CEO Walden O'Dell's August 2003 vow that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president." Comments on Oliver Willis' blog, for instance, speculate that perhaps Diebold, an electronic voting machine manufacturer, had something to do with Green Party candidate David Cobb's huge early vote totals in some Ohio counties. (These numbers were later corrected.)

But conspiracy theorists really latched onto John Kerry's promising exit-poll numbers. Just months ago, there was a lot of controversy over whether exit polls revealed election fraud in Venezuela. Is it possible that American exit polls weren't wrong, but, rather, exposed that Kerry's early afternoon advantages had been erased by a GOP-friendly hacker?

The News Target Network has a rundown on Bush's "mysterious '5% advantage' " in states that use electronic voting here. The site Democratic Underground, which as of 4:20 p.m. PT Nov. 3 has closed its forums to non-registered users, argued that hanky panky could have happened in states that don't have paper receipts. "EVERY STATE that has EVoting but no paper trails has an unexplained advantage for Bush of around +5% when comparing exit polls to actual results." On the other hand, "In EVERY STATE that has paper audit trails on their EVoting, the exit poll results match the actual results reported within the margin of error."

Joseph Cannon, who runs the blog CANNONFIRE, makes a similar argument: The states that "offered the best, safest opportunity for manipulation of the final count" were Ohio, Florida, and New Mexico. "In other states, the exit polling matched the final results rather well. In Nevada, Illinois, and New Hampshire, computer votes do have paper trails—and in those instances, the exit polls tracked the final totals. To recap: In three states with no paper trails, we have exit poll/final tally disagreement. In three states with paper trails, we have exit poll/final tally congruence."

Cannon's analysis doesn't jibe with Slate's exit-poll numbers. A comparison to the latest vote tallies shows Slate's final exit numbers in the paper-trail states of New Hampshire (undervalued Bush by 5 percent) and Nevada (undervalued Bush by 3 percent) were less accurate than those in Ohio (2 percent off), Florida (3 percent), and New Mexico (2 percent). The other state Cannon lists, Illinois, won't require a paper trail until 2006.

Black Box Voting, a nonprofit organization that promises "consumer protection for elections," announced that they would undertake "the largest Freedom of Information action in history" to "obtain internal computer logs and other documents from 3,000 individual counties and townships." On Monday, the group had sounded a warning that "hackers may be targeting the central computers counting our votes tomorrow." The group claims that a Sept. 15 FOIA request filed in King County, Washington, revealed "modem 'trouble slips' consistent with hacker activity."

The nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation has a colorful map showing the type of electronic voting equipment used in each state and each county. The Election Incident Reporting System, which fielded calls at the number 1-866-OUR-VOTE, has another map detailing, at deadline, 17,562 complaints nationwide and 1,398 in Ohio, with 759 of those in Cuyahoga County. The watchdog groups Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Verified Voting Foundation held a joint press conference Tuesday (listen on MP3) on "how to analyze the reports" and "why a paper audit trail may be the best solution for some of the problems that are coming up." A scroll through the complaints in Cuyahoga, though, reveals that most have more to do with long lines and provisional ballots than electronic voting machines.