HBO's Hacking Democracy (premiering tonight at 9 pm/ET) tells the story of Bev Harris, a grandmother and writer who started investigating the subject of electronic voting in 2002 after questioning her county's switch to electronic touch-screen voting machines. Unsatisfied with their explanation, Harris set out to learn about electronic voting systems on her own, and in doing so stumbled upon shocking revelations about the vulnerability of the software and hardware. Harris, who went on to form the watchdog group BlackBoxVoting.org, recently spoke with TVGuide.com about her illuminating, though unsettling, journey.
TVGuide.com: Have you read any of this week's news stories, about Diebold [a leading manufacturer of voting systems] asking HBO to slap a disclaimer on the documentary?
Bev Harris: They havent seen the real film at all.
TVGuide.com: Apparently they are taking issue with, among other things, the hacking demonstration which shows how central tabulators can be tampered with by modifying a single memory card [on which a single machine's votes are recorded].
Harris: It's interesting they would bring that up because the State of California commissioned its own independent study, Diebold was ordered to cooperate with the study, and all of the scientists said, "The hack is real, and it is dangerous." And they found 16 additional vulnerabilities. You have to sort of decide who it is that has more credibility a manufacturer that wants to sell a system, or six independent scientists commissioned by the State of California.
TVGuide.com: The machines at issue, how widespread is their current use?
Harris: The film isnt just about Diebold it also talks about Sequoia and other companies but computerized voting systems will account for 80 to 90 percent of this coming [Nov. 7] election, depending on how you define it.
TVGuide.com: Is it just optical scanning and touch-screen machines that are of concern?
Harris: Computer systems are complex systems that all interact. So yes, they have optical scanning machines in every jurisdiction, because those are what count the absentee ballots. And there's the central tabulator, which is the one Dr. Herbert Thompson hacks [in Hacking Democracy], which compiles all the different information from the different locations. Diebold now makes an electronic poll book that replaces the sign-in sheet, and that is having a lot of problems in Maryland and Georgia. The film would be overly complex if it talked about all the different computer issues, but there are a lot of them.
TVGuide.com: Watching this unsettling documentary, you come away feeling like paper-chad ballots are our best bet.
Harris: Actually, those are counted by a computer, as well. There are a couple of solutions that are more in the direction we want to see. For example, this election, 45 percent of the jurisdictions in New Hampshire will be counting by hand. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has introduced a bill into the U.S. Congress to have the entire presidential race counted by hand in 2008. Canada counts their federal elections by hand, and they have the results generally in about four hours, and with little controversy.
TVGuide.com: Why did John Kerry concede in 2004, when there was evidence pointing to "negative vote" tampering [in which a hacked memory card directs a tabulator to subtract votes]?
Harris: You know, that was something that I was baffled by, because he had specifically promised, and collected money, to fight for every vote and get to the bottom of any issues that arose. It was very disappointing to a lot of people.
TVGuide.com: One fact reiterated during the film is that if vote totals are somehow cooked, there is usually no electronic record of the tampering.
Harris: Some of the clumsier tampering efforts we are starting to catch now, because they don't know how to erase their tracks. But the one demonstrated by Harri Hursti [in Hacking Democracy] is particularly elegant because it deletes itself afterward. There's no way to find it at all afterward.
TVGuide.com: Did Diebold ever step away from its contention that there is no "executable program" on the memory cards? That they can't be hacked to register "negative" votes?
Harris: They do a lot of parsing of words.... And at one point, they tried to redefine for themselves what "executable" means. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: At the end, we see that Ohio's Cuyahoga County, despite much controversy and unanswered questions about the fidelity of its voting system, went ahead and ordered $21 million in new Diebold machines....
Harris: They did, and what's so interesting is they ordered these touch-screens with a paper trail, and when there was an audit of their May primary, the paper trail did not match the machines. None of the results matched the central tabulator. It was a complete fiasco. I would not want to be the election supervisor there.
TVGuide.com: With an eye on this coming Tuesday's elections, are there any options for anyone who doesnt feel complete faith in their ballot being accurately cast? Is there any alternate ballot-casting method, anything "old-school" a voter can request?
Harris: In some places they represent that there is like, in California, voters can ask for a paper ballot but those are still counted by machines. It goes into the same system. In Riverside County, some citizens followed those paper ballots to see what they did with them, and what they found is people were hired to enter the paper ballot into a touch-screen. It added insult to injury. This election, what we really have to do as independent citizens and Black Box Voting is working with them to help them know what to do is to ask questions and document. Once that body of evidence comes in, we're going to see some real change.
TVGuide.com: Is there any chance that we as a nation, going into the 2008 elections, will feel complete confidence in the vote-counting system? Is there enough time?
Harris: It depends on how well we make the case this time around, and how effective we are at solving the problems that we document in this coming election.
TVGuide.com: After the 2000 election, I remember thinking, "Why isnt there a singular, unified vote-casting system?" But now I realize that in the wrong hands....
Harris: The missing ingredient has been the citizens. Any system that we end up with has to be one that citizens can oversee. Anything that says, "You dont get to look at how it works" or "You have to trust the vendor," doesnt really cut it. In a communist country, you have to trust the government. In a democracy, you get to check.
Send your comments on this Q&A to firstname.lastname@example.org.