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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

Prints of Darkness: A Year Into the E-voting Crisis, Shouldn't We Have Noticed the Printer That's Already Built into Each Diebold Voting Machine?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

The press, of which I consider myself some vestigial part -- a little toe or an appendix at best -- works in mysterious ways. How does a newsworthy event turn into news? And why does it seem we cover follicle by follicle every Julia Roberts hair color change, yet big stories are often overlooked completely? Of course, I have a theory. Celebrity news is cheap and easy, it is delivered straight to the reporter and causes little controversy, so it gets covered a lot. But more complex stories -- especially technology stories -- have to go through a vetting process that involves both the standards of the news organization and the knowledge of the reporter, which is often minimal. That's the major reason I think it took so long for Bev Harris to break through with her touchscreen voting scandal story: The major news media had never heard of her and they didn't really understand the technology. And apparently they still don't, because they appear to be missing an obvious and important new development in this story.

By now we know that touchscreen voting machines are suspect. They can be tampered with by determined folks, potentially changing an election. And most of them appear to be incapable of supporting effective vote recounts, even if those recounts are mandated by law. I wrote about this long ago and now many writers cover the same material, but I don't think we have been doing a very good job. For example, the tide appears to have turned, and voting officials are now starting to demand that touchscreen voting machines be able to generate a paper audit trail of every vote. This has the voting machine vendors crying foul ("We know that requirement was always in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), but we talked you out of it, right?") and asking for more money -- lots more money -- to add printers to their touchscreen machines. That is IF the printers can even be added, the technical challenge is so great.

Then this week I heard from reader Jed Rothwell, fresh from a day working the polls as a voting clerk. Jed says in the case of Diebold machines at least, there was a printer inside already.

Jed writes, "Meg Smothers of the League of Women Voters recently said that Georgia has 28,000 voting machines, and it would cost $15 million to retrofit them with printers to produce receipts. That comes to $535 per machine. Yet these machines already have printers. They produce a paper receipt at the end of the day showing the vote tallies. The printers are the kind used in cash registers, and they have large rolls of paper that would easily last through the 12 hours the polls remain open. It takes people about a minute to cast a ballot, so one machine would need to print at most 720 receipts per day. The printer and paper are located on the right side of the machine, under a locked metal cover. It would be a simple matter to fabricate a new metal equipment cover with an outlet above the printer, that would print a receipt for the voter. Based on the retail cost of similar metal computer equipment cases available in any computer store, this should cost approximately $30 per machine, not $500. The programming change would be trivial."

To Diebold, of course, no programming change is trivial. How could it be, since they forgot to offer up the services of the printer already inside the voting machines they build?

The printer that Jed found is there because of that HAVA requirement for a paper trail. While the law calls for a paper receipt for every vote, Diebold interpreted this to mean a paper receipt for every VOTING MACHINE. Diebold would say they didn't interpret it this way, state and county election officials did, but there is substantial evidence to suggest the idea came originally from Diebold.

One receipt per machine is better than nothing. In theory it would allow authorities to find vote tallies that were changed after the receipt was printed (after the polls were closed). But that's if the receipt printer was even used. Many election officials aren't using the printers. Some think the printer is there only as a checklist item to qualify for HAVA funding. In California the printer output from each machine is supposed to be posted at the polling place for a week. Apparently such posting is the exception, not the norm. The receipt is supposed to be printed BEFORE results are sent electronically to a central counting system. This, too, seems to be rarely done. This doesn't say much for those election officials, does it?

Nor does it say much about the reporters "covering" this story. Why didn't THEY know about the hidden printer to ask if it could be used?

One of the controversies about paper audit trails of voting is that they'd allow people to sell their votes and use the receipt as proof. One answer to this is that the receipt doesn't have to be readable by humans beyond perhaps the voter's name and date. The rest could be a barcode. Another idea would be to not give the receipt to the voter at all, but to collect it in a bin inside the voting machine, producing a long strip of paper recording every vote, making it harder to change those votes at any time after they were cast. Such a long form receipt would require not including voter names, I suppose, since this is supposed to be a secret ballot.

However it is accomplished, Jed's idea that the existing printer ought to be usable is a good one. If Diebold was into customer service, they might have suggested it, but I can't find any record if they did. Instead, they allowed a misunderstanding to create more confusion accompanied by an opportunity to make money. I doubt that this behavior is illegal, but it is certainly unethical and it doesn't do anything to help me feel better about electronic voting as it is being implemented in America.

But wait, there's more! The press seems to have also missed another story broken right here a couple weeks ago. This column is well read in the news media, but it always amazes me how timid they are to jump on what ought to be a good story. I'm not Matt Drudge, you know. So I'm going to give them another chance.

In my last column about Burst v. Microsoft a couple weeks ago, I wrote about finding on the court web site a document that mentioned Jim Allchin, head of Microsoft's Platform Group -- a VERY important guy in the company. The document I found wasn't much, just proof that a summons had been delivered, but the title was very provocative -- something about Allchin ordering Microsoft employees to destroy "business-related e-mail."

Uh-oh.

Almost all the documents in this case are under court seal, so I suspected the appearance of this one was a mistake. But then I talked to a few laweyrs and learned that this class of document (proof of service) is not normally considered serious enough to seal. I also learned that there are no strict guidelines on how such documents are titled. So it appears that Burst's very clever lawyer, Spencer Hosie, was using a loophole to give the world a hint of what's at stake for Microsoft and Jim Allchin. Only nobody really noticed, I mean beyond me.

The implication of this document is that Burst found an e- mail from Allchin ordering people working under him to destroy certain e-mails. If true, this goes against Microsoft's stated position that it leaves it up to individual employees to decide what to erase and what to keep -- a position that has been very useful to date because it has allowed Microsoft to lose embarrassing e-mail pretty much with impunity.

IF the Allchin e-mail is for real and IF it orders the destruction of e-mails specifically important to Burst's case, then Microsoft is in big trouble -- not just in this case but others. Remember that Microsoft is subject to a consent decree or two that hold their corporate behavior to very specific standards. Yeah, right.

At some point in the near future, there will be a public hearing about this that should be very interesting. And I'm sure it will be covered in Hosie's upcoming three-hour deposition of Bill Gates. What will Bill say? I'm guessing he'll blame it on Allchin, who'll be left twisting, slowly twisting in the wind.

Now THAT's a story.

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