Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Humboldt At The Tipping Point: Who Dares Defend Diebold?

Here in Humboldt County, CA a local story of national interest broke last Thursday on the websites of the Eureka Times-Standard (archive) and North Coast Journal. The next morning I wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in today's T-S (archive). I'll let this serve as a summary then provide links to much of what's been published already and add some further reasons for optimism at the bottom.

Any defenders?

Letters to the editor

Posted: 12/10/2008 01:15:38 AM PST

First I'd like to congratulate Kevin Collins, Tom Pinto, Mitch Trachtenberg, Parke Bostrom and all the volunteers of the Election Transparency Project.

Their work revealed a discrepancy caused by Humboldt's electronic voting equipment last month.

Over the last few years I've made many different arguments for getting rid of the Diebold (now Premier) equipment used to count votes in Humboldt County. Somehow it wasn't enough that they “count” in secret, can be easily manipulated without detection, and report results impossible in a legitimate election.

Somehow local decision makers weren't deterred from doing business with a company that admitted to illegally installing uncertified software here and elsewhere; that was sued in class action suits filed by company shareholders; and whose then -- CEO said he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes” to Bush in 2004.

Now we learn that Humboldt has finally experienced what is euphemistically called a “glitch.” In reality it was a bug in Diebold's central tabulation program, GEMS. This caused the results of November's election, already certified as accurate by Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich, to be proven inaccurate.

Worse still, Diebold knew about the bug at least four years ago and never fixed it. Other counties were made aware of the problem and told how to work around it. Crnich says she never knew, and I believe her.

This raises many questions, most important among them: Who dares defend the continued use of these machines and the county's relationship with Diebold/Premier?

Dave Berman
# # #
So here's a summary of links from the past several days, then I've got a few more observations.

T-S, 12/5/08: Software glitch yields inaccurate election results (archive)
T-S, 12/7/08 Local elections office commended (archive)
T-S Editorial, 12/7/08 - A glitch that should never have been (archive)

Wired - two Kim Zetter articles from 12/8/08:
Serious Error in Diebold Voting Software Caused Lost Ballots in California County
Unique Transparency Program Uncovers Problems with Voting Software

Election Transparency Project volunteers:
Parke Bostrom - (main site)
Mitch Trachtenberg - (main site)
Tom Pinto -

John Gideon & Brad Friedman at, 12/8/08 - 'Humboldt Transparency Project' Reveals Diebold, U.S. Federal E-Voting Scam

The BradBlog piece includes this link to an .mp3 of Crnich with Brad on the Peter B. Collins show on the afternoon of 12/5/08.

* * *
Hopefully it is already clear why this is a story of national interest. BradBlog's 12/8 article points out:
The fact that Diebold/Premier did not take the action to recall the systems, actually puts them into a situation where they may very well have violated federal law. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 Title III Section 301(a)(5) mandates an acceptable error rate for voting systems in use in federal elections. That error rate, not counting any error caused by an action of the voter, cannot exceed 0.00001%.

However, in the case of the Humboldt County vote count, the error rate was 0.31%.

We have asked both the Secretary of State of California and the EAC if they plan to take action by asking the US Attorney Office to investigate this seemingly clear violation of federal law. Neither the CA SoS, nor the EAC has yet replied to our queries on that matter.
Parke Bostrom's post above describes how "deck zero" became the batch of ballots that were handled properly by the elections department, and yet vanished from the final certified total. He comments further that the audit log for the Diebold GEMS central tabulation software matched the wrongly decreased total:
This means the audit log is not truly a "log" in the classical computer program sense, but is rather a "re-imagining" of what GEMS would like the audit log to be, based on whatever information GEMS happens to remember at the end of the vote counting process.
This demonstrates the system will cover its tracks when reporting an inaccurate result, destroying assurances of built-in memory redundancies and making a mockery of logic and accuracy testing. Not just here, everywhere. Frankly this is just another example of something we've known a long time.

Crnich herself has been very interesting through all of this. In the "Serious Error..." article above, Zetter reports:
Crnich told Threat Level the issue has made her question her confidence in the voting system because, even though the company provided officials with a workaround, the problem indicated a fundamental flaw in the company's programming. She said she'd heard a lot of stories from other election officials about problems with voting machines, but never thought they applied to California.

"I've always sort of listened to those anecdotal incidents with a jaundiced ear because California has some very stringent requirements of election systems that are in use here as well as some very strict security procedures and I didn't think those things affected us here," she said. "But this has sort of put a cloud over any confidence that I had in the Premier equipment that's been in this department since 1995."
Crnich losing confidence of course should be music to our ears. She also said a great thing in the interview with Peter B., explaining why she's been willing to work with citizen volunteers. As Humboldt County Clerk/Recorder and Registrar of Voters, Crnich is an elected official and I'm glad she acknowledged a responsibility to listen to constituents.

In all, the media coverage above practically lionizes Crnich, which I think goes too far. Consider this analogy. Someone builds a fire in the middle of their bedroom and burns down the house. Would this person be praised for the wisdom of having an insurance policy? Using secret corporate vote counting computers, whether by Diebold or any other vendor, is playing with fire.

I've been unable to reach Crnich by phone in the past two days, repeatedly getting voice mail that could not accept more messages.

Also today, The North Coast Journal came out with Hank Sims' "Town Dandy" column called Deck Zero. Sims writes in reference to the known failure of the GEMS central tabulation software:
The fact that Diebold/Premier let it stand for over four years, potentially undermining the first principle of American democracy, is an absolute outrage. These people should be shunned. Maybe indicted.
Throw in a little validation from the T-S editorial board...:
They were loud, and they were strident in proclaiming that they didn't trust election technologies as much as they trust the ability of actual human beings to count votes.

The recent discovery, thanks to the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project, of a discrepancy in election results due to flawed software reveals that these activists were right to make noise, and right to complain about a company that has been less than responsible in dealing with the problem.
...and it is starting to sound like we may be at a tipping point here. You might expect me to be frothing about hand-counting paper ballots right about now. You'd be wrong. Thinking as an organizer, I would hope now to establish three things that would be widely agreeable throughout the community:
  • An alternative to Diebold is needed
  • A careful evaluation of the possibilities would be appropriate and desirable
  • The input of the fully informed community would be appropriate and desirable
That said, if this is the nature of the opportunity now, I will re-offer to the community the materials I've developed to evaluate hand counting, most notably the forecast tool (spreadsheet) for estimating time, cost and labor needs for hand-counting in the precinct on election night. Back in the summer of 2007, when I first made this public, Sims noted: "Initial twiddling with the numbers suggests that it wouldn't be all that time-consuming or costly -- and wouldn't you rather wait a few days and spend a little more for a trustworthy count?"

I'd like to see more consistency in Sims' election integrity advocacy. And bottom line, I hope he'll push for a thorough examination of Diebold alternatives, as I'm sure Transparency Project volunteers will have other preferences and ideas to contribute to what could become the most envied process and dialog in the country.

This is all another way of saying "what would be better" is an inclusive and engaging community dialog aimed at literally defining "better" than Diebold.


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