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Manufacturers Admit Voting Machines Unreliable

  • "American elections are a fraud and a scam" is the stern verdict of Pat Buchanan and a deeply disturbing commentary on the state of democracy in America.
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By Christopher Bollyn

CHICAGO -- Despite acknowledging "failure rates" ranging from 16 percent to 28 percent, election officials here express no concern for the integrity of the ballot in the age of voting machines.

Across the United States, in precincts from coast to coast, computers equipped with cellular telephony and two-way mo dems count the votes. These ma chines, designed and operated by private companies, and the laws that ushered in their use, have essentially disenfranchised citizen election judges from the vote-counting process and relegated them to insignificant roles as public servants working for private business on election night.

Some officials concerned with elections have pondered the unthinkable, namely, the stealing of a presidential election by computer fraud in the metropolitan areas of key states.

Steve White, former assistant attorney general of California, said, "Given the importance of the national election, sooner or later it will be attempted. There is a real reluctance to concede the gravity of the problem."

Every official interviewed at the Illinois State Board of Elections was indifferent to the threat of computer vote fraud. Rick Fulle, assistant director of voting systems and 25-year veteran of the board said, "You can't secure any computer system."

A hand count of the votes by the election judges at the precinct level, before posting the results, is the only way to ensure that the machine tally is correct and that no computer fraud has been perpetrated. However, election officials discourage any manual audit saying that there are too many choices on the ballot and that a manual count would take too long.

Tests of computer vote-counting systems used in Illinois from 1983-1987, which checked tens of thousands of ballots, revealed significant errors in the computer counting in more than 20 percent of the tests.

Fulle said that in Illinois today there is "a 16 percent error rate" with ballot-counting machines. He expected numerous problems on election night saying "equipment will fail across the state."

"I don't understand why nobody cares," Michael L. Harty, former Illinois director of voting systems and standards said. "At one point, we had tabulation errors in 28 percent of the systems tested, and nobody cared."

Officials from the Illinois Board of Elections said election judges are only required to verify that the number of ballots tabulated by the machine matches the number of ballots counted by the judges -- as if voters are only voting for one candidate.

"Nothing in the [Illinois] law requires that the count be accurate," Fulle added.

In this way the basic role of election judges -- to count and verify the accuracy of the vote -- has been usurped and compromised by election machines operated by private companies.

Whether it was the Precinct Ballot Counter 2100 (PBC), the Optech Eagle III, the Model 100 Optic Mark Reader (OMR), or the Votronic touch-screen system that counted your vote, these machines have something in common: they are all designed and operated by Elections Systems & Software, Inc. (ES&S). Each contains a two-way modem, allowing them to communicate -- and be communicated with -- while they are in operation.

What is particularly troubling about these machines is the fact that they contain an internal modem, which enables anyone with a modem-equipped computer, from hackers and vendors to telephone company personnel and politicians, to access and alter the computer's tally of the votes.

ES&S is "the largest company in the world focusing solely on automating the election process." The company "provides specialized systems and software to automate the entire election process for local, state, and national governments worldwide."

ES&S is a reorganized company that was given a new name in November 1997 after combining two of the largest election machine companies: Business Re cords Corp. (BRC, formerly part of Cro nus In dus tries) and American Informa tion Systems, Inc. (AIS).

ES&S is a privately-held company owned by unknown investors and headed by Aldo Tesi, who refers to the democratic franchise as "the election industry."

The company is headquartered in Omaha, Neb. and supplies "thousands and thousands of machines being used across the country" to more than 2,200 U.S. jurisdictions in 49 states.

Cook County bought nearly 5,000 PBC machines from ES&S at a cost of $25 million for the suburbs and the city of Chicago in what a company spokesman called a "huge contract."

ES&S supplied Model 100 ballot-counting machines through a Madrid-based company called Indra for the elections in Venezuela.

It was reported in The Omaha World Herald that the head of Venezuela's National Elections Council, Etanislao Gonzalez, placed the blame for the technical difficulties during the election on the Nebraska-based ES&S.

The Omaha World Herald is published by John Gottschalk, who is one of the directors of ES&S.

"The firm flagrantly failed to meet its commitments and the failure had destabilized the country's electoral process," Gonzalez said.

A Venezuelan air force jet flew to Omaha to fetch experts to "salvage" the election. It was reported that more than 6 percent of the 7,000 voting machines broke down during the Venezuelan election and that there were major "technical glitches."

The PBC machines contain an internal Expedite modem made by Novatel Wire less, an international company based in San Diego.

Novatel is a "spin-off" of two Canadian companies, Novatel, Inc. of Calgary, a company specializing in satellite communications and global positioning systems, and an internationally owned oil company in Alberta.

"You certainly run the risk of somebody hacking into these [vote-counting] ma chines," a spokesman for Novatel Wire less told The SPOTLIGHT. "The machine can be accessed anytime it is plugged in," if someone knows the computer's Inter net protocol or IP address.

"Internet voting scares me," he added, "it puts us in the same situation as a Third-World country."

When asked about the ownership of Novatel Wireless, he said, "I've no idea who owns the company."

Roy Saltman, a computer consultant at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Computer Systems Labora tory, wrote a report for the Commerce De partment in 1988 entitled, Accuracy, In tegrity, and Security in Computerized Vote-Tallying.

Saltman documented many instances of vote mistabulation and the inherent vulnerability of U.S. voting systems to error and fraud, including: "fraudulent alterations in the computer program or in control cards that manipulate the program" and "introduction of false voting summaries through changes in data stored in removable data storage units of precinct-located, vote-counting devices."

Herb Deutsch, who works in the technical department of ES&S in Rockford, Ill., where the PBC was designed, has worked with election software and hardware for 25 years and formerly worked for BRC.

Deutsch defended the PBC saying that its ballot tabulation program is "generic" and that its computer code has been "certified."

Deutsch said that he trusted that the election computers were safe from hackers on the very day that it was reported that Microsoft's computers and source code had been "hacked" for a week.

Each PBC machine is programmed and run by a pre-programmed 512-K memory card. According to Deutsch, "the memory card can be used for lots of purposes" and contains the coded instructions that "essentially tell the machine what to do" when it is turned on. These cards are programmed at the company offices of ES&S in Chicago.

The card is removed by the election judges and turned in to headquarters when the polls close.

Vikant Corp., a Chicago area company owned by Alex Kantarovich of Minsk, Belorussia, supplied the control cards to ES&S.

When The SPOTLIGHT inquired where Vikant cards are produced, Kantarovich said, "I cannot disclose where the cards are made," but admitted that they are not made in America.

Kantarovich told The SPOTLIGHT that he has been in America for 11 years but declined to discuss his employment prior to running Vikant Corp., saying, "I don't want to disclose that information."

Kantarovich said he had obtained his degree in the Soviet Union and initially refused to answer questions about how his product was chosen for the ES&S voting equipment.

It is "inside information that I cannot disclose," he added.

Kantarovich said later that his firm was chosen over larger firms like IBM and Panasonic because Vikant was able to meet the specific requirements of ES&S and provide the cards on short notice. He added, however, that there had been "some problems" with the cards from other suppliers.

"To tell you the truth, I have no idea how these vote counting machines work," Kantarovich said. "We are just the supplier of one particular product."