Review: Hacks, lies and videotape

Election integrity advocate Brad Friedman looks at HBO's Hacking Democracy

I believe in full transparency. So allow me to disclose to you that I didn't come to Hacking Democracy, HBO's new documentary on e-voting in America, with an unbiased perspective on the electronic voting machines that an unprecedented number of Americans will encounter at the polls in next week's general elections.

In fact, I'm one of those who have been labeled "conspiracy theorist" or "technophobe," despite years of experience as a computer programmer. Where do labels like those come from? Well, to quote the film:

"It makes me cry. I'm sorry but it does. ... There are people out there who are giving their lives to make sure our elections are secure. They're being called conspiracy theorists and technophobes. And these vendors are lying and saying that everything's all right and it's not all right."

-- Susan Pynchon, election integrity activist from the Florida Fair Elections Coalition, after serving as an eyewitness to the first known hack of a Diebold optical-scan voting machine, December 2005

My name is Brad Friedman, and I run When I began two years ago what has become an odyssey of investigative reporting on e-voting problems, I was completely naive -- clueless about the realities that had already set in for our crumbling democracy. Dozens of whistleblower and scientific reports, more than a handful of hacks, uncountable demonstrable lies by American voting machine vendors and elections officials, and thousands of blog items and articles later, I am anything but unbiased, or naive, or clueless. After viewing Hacking Democracy, I hope that more of the American public will share my horror at what's happening.

Still from Hacking Democracy

Kathleen Wynne and Bev Harris (Image courtesy HBO's documentary, "Hacking Democracy")

If HBO's new documentary gets even a fraction of the eyeballs it deserves, it's hard to see how it could miss having a profound effect on the electoral process. Then again, with the overwhelming evidence already available, it's unimaginable that next week we will actually be heading to polling places nationwide where more than 80% of America's votes will be tabulated by hackable, inaccurate, unreliable electronic voting machines using 100% secret software to record and tabulate our votes.

And yet here we go.

Hacking Democracy is the culmination of three years of work by filmmakers Simon Ardizzone, Robert Carrillo Cohen and Russell Michaels, who have documented some of the most mind-blowing moments in the short, storied and sordid history of American e-voting. Other films I've seen on the subject -- some released, some still in the works, many of them superb, even several of them in which I appear -- tend to rely on talking-head expert explanations or data-crunching facts and figures. Hacking Democracy makes its case by showing rather than telling. It's accessible and, by the time viewers see the worst hack of them all, it's gut-wrenching. It's a real-life detective story, with real bad guys sweating, evading, lying and misleading, only to be busted on camera as snake-oil salesmen.

Still from Hacking Democracy


In the film, election fraud investigators Bev Harris and the late Andy Stephenson of  (BBV) travel the country to unearth firsthand evidence of democracy perverted. The access the filmmakers had on that journey is stunning. The cameras were there when Diebold executives baldly lied about the vulnerability of their products. They were there when investigators from BBV and other election integrity organizations went Dumpster-diving in Florida, Ohio and Texas to retrieve damning evidence from the eternal memory hole. And they got it all on camera. Even for a veteran observer like me, someone already familiar with most of the discoveries, seeing the results left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I'm even now having a difficult time shaking.

Setting a tone of partisan dread early in the film are the fruits of a Dumpster dive early in the film outside the McKinney, Texas, headquarters of Diebold Election Systems Inc., where BBV's Harris discovers a line item and unexplained accounts receivable from the "8th District, Republican Committee." But another segment reveals a Republican candidate from Louisiana going from touch-screen machine to touch-screen machine in the bowels of a county elections warehouse demonstrating that on each one, her attempts to vote for herself result in a vote registered at the bottom of the screen for her opponent. That e-voting is not a partisan issue is one of the film's most powerful messages, counteracting one of the false and divisive impressions defenders of these indefensible machines have put forth. (Time for some more personal disclosure: I didn't vote for John Kerry.)

The film quickly reveals that the main culprits are the executives of Diebold, who commit and are caught in one fib, lie, misdirect and slur after another. For instance, after Harris stumbled (via Google search) on Diebold's supersecret software source code perched on a public FTP site, Diebold President Bob Urosevich in an open hearing tells technical advisers to California's secretary of state that "basically, the code was stolen." No, basically, the code was left sitting there for anyone to download from the Net. Of course, Urosevich -- who, along with his compatriots at Diebold, has gone to extraordinary measures to discredit Harris and others like her (myself included) over the years -- knows the difference. He simply appears not to give a damn, or to hope that listeners don't know or care.

The deception continued, of course, through the 2004 election and beyond. The film moves through a frightening number of incidents in 80 minutes. We get a look at the situation in Florida, where systems made by Global Election Systems (a firm purchased in 2001 by Diebold as an entree into the e-voting market) "malfunctioned" in 2000 by registering negative 16,022 votes for Al Gore, leading to his original concession. The Florida saga continued in 2004, with tech anomalies and procedural snafus that defy belief by reasonable people. We pass through Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where state law was circumvented to game a crucial hand count. "[The hand count was] just for the public to see," says one of the three Cuyahoga County officials who would later be indicted for the phony recount. But again, the deal was done -- though amazingly, the cameras caught it all.

If it were all bad guys, Hacking Democracy would be nearly unbearable. Fortunately, honesty in government isn't entirely a thing of the past: Enter our hero, the legendary Leon County, Fla., supervisor of elections, Ion Sancho. The official in charge of the county that includes Tallahassee was named in 2000 to oversee the eventually aborted-by-SCOTUS recount of the Bush-Gore election. When BBV came to Sancho in 2005 with the claim that his own Diebold optical-scan paper-based voting system could be hacked, he did what no other election director in the country had yet done: He allowed them to come in and prove it. And prove it they did, in the much storied (at least among democracy junkies) "Hursti hack" of December 2005 -- seen for the first time as the chilling climax of Hacking Democracy.

A note here: I mentioned optical-scan machines above. A lot of the uproar you've heard about in the mainstream media centers on the "paperless" DRE (direct-recording electronic) touch-screen machines. Optical-scan machines and DREs with VVPAT (voter-verifiable paper audit trails) haven't gotten as much criticism. After all, there's a paper ballot that gets scanned by those optical scanners, and a paper record left by VVPAT machines. Solves the problem, right?

Wrong. Finnish computer security expert Harri Hursti discovered that Diebold stored an executable program on the same removable memory card used to store the tabulated votes on each Diebold voting machine. "If someone had told me there was a modifiable, executable program in the same place where the most secured data was stored, I'd say you'd have to be misunderstanding something, crazy or lying," Hursti declares.

The attempted Hursti hack, as allowed by Sancho, moves forward throughout the film. By the time it was completed (in pitifully short order), the e-voting world would be turned on its head. Hursti succeeding in exposing that both optical-scan systems and touch-screen voting systems manufactured by Diebold -- and apparently tested by no one -- could be hacked, an election result completely flipped, and no trace would be left behind. All that was needed was a $100 memory card reader bought off the Internet and about 60 seconds of access to the machine's memory card. RadioShack or Best Buy has all the necessary tools, in fact.

To repeat: It's not just Diebold's DREs that can be hacked. The Hursti hack targeted the memory card. Not only DREs but optical-scan units can record their information to memory cards. In either case, they're vulnerable. The ability to have an election flipped, and to do so with a small number of people involved, was no longer a "theory."

So, what exactly did happen back in 2000 with those negative 16,022 votes? How do you vote a minus, anyway? Sancho, who used the exact same optical-scan machines in his Leon County election, believes he knows. "In the 17 years that I've been an election administrator, my experience is that that kind of subtraction cannot occur accidentally," he explains. "Someone consciously tried to affect that computer system and consciously tried to perpetuate a fraud to steal votes," he concludes.

If Sancho is right, where else might votes have been stolen with these infernal black boxes? In Florida, we'll likely never know: A new state law makes it a crime to even examine any part of a paper ballot by hand once it has already been counted by a machine. And never mind those counties that use entirely paperless touch-screen systems (made by Diebold and others), where there isn't anything for a human being to examine at all. In the wake of the Hursti hack, the Sunshine State has moved to exclude anyone but state preapproved, "authorized" inspectors from examining voting systems.

By law, even a man like Sancho, elected by his constituents to administer free and fair elections, is no longer allowed to independently inspect the machinery that the state now forces him to use. "Election directors must be more demanding," Sancho says of his colleagues around the country who have done little more than take the voting machine companies' word for it that their equipment is safe and secure and performs as expected.

"The vendors are driving the process of voting technology in the United States," he says moments after his own equipment is gamed before his very eyes. "I would much rather, at this point, focus on allowing citizens to select technology that satisfies their needs."

Alas, too many never got the chance. Even after the Hursti hack was known, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the site of so much trouble in 2004, spent $20 million on similar machines. Out in California, a team of researchers appointed by Secretary of State Bruce McPherson verified Hursti's findings, spotted an additional 16 vulnerabilities described as "potentially more serious" than the Hursti hack ... and certified the Diebold systems anyway. They are set to be used this Nov. 7 across the Golden State -- or, as Diebold refers to it, "America's largest voting market."

I've got one more reason for you to see this documentary when it airs Thursday: Diebold really, really doesn't want you to. Earlier this week, I posted an item to my own blog detailing the efforts Diebold is making to pressure HBO not to air this film. However, Diebold representatives are apparently making as big a mess of this effort as they have of their machines -- in fact, they appear to have confused Hacking Democracy with an entirely different film, making demonstrably wrong statements about the film's content and even who created it. HBO has, to its credit, stuck to its guns, stating in the Hollywood Reporter that Diebold has apparently confused two different e-voting documentaries, and that in any case the company "stands by [the] film and has no intention of withdrawing the film from its schedule."

I've read the reports. I've seen the hacks with my own eyes. I've broken scores of what were -- or should have been -- earth-shattering, mind-blowing, e-vote-decimating stories. I worked closely with Bobby Kennedy Jr. on his two landmark exposés for Rolling Stone, which blew the lid off the scam. I have come to find that there is nothing -- no scientific evidence, no scientist period, and no anecdotal evidence -- to even indicate that our public democracy has not been hijacked by small group of private, partisan industrialists who are willing to say anything, do anything and lie about anything they need to in order to ensure that our electoral system heads straight toward the all-out train wreck that is surely coming.

Get out and vote this November, America. But be vigilant, be prepared to fight for your democracy this time around, and wish us all luck. We're going to need it as we head toward the train wreck ahead.

See more about e-voting:

  •  E-voting state by state: What you need to know

  •  Major players: the vendors

  •  Laws, lingo and technologies

  •  Sound Off: Your comments on e-voting in 2006

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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