My Turn: Stakes in state election could invite trouble

Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2004

I read with some skepticism the Juneau Empire's latest upbeat article (Oct. 17) extolling the accuracy of Alaska's voting system. Even if it is the best in the country, no system is tamperproof.

Election fraud is as old as voting and has become more sophisticated with the advent of computers. But most of what we hear about our voting equipment skirts the issue of deliberate mischief. Alaska's Senate race this year may determine which party controls the U. S. Senate. The stakes are higher than usual, and therefore we might be an attractive target for unscrupulous players.

If there is a weak link in our system, it could be Alaska's association with Diebold, Inc. Alaska's optical scanners were purchased from Global Election Systems in 1998, but Diebold bought out Global a couple of years ago. Diebold, which controls half the nation's voting machines, is an overtly partisan company. Its integrity in terms of some recent elections has been widely questioned. University studies and state-sponsored audits have found serious security flaws in different versions of the company's election software.

On Oct. 4, the New York Times published a scathing editorial on this one company's ethics, focusing on a lawsuit that charges Diebold with lying about the security of the voting system in California. The editorial closes: "Diebold has a great deal to do to make its work transparent and its company trustworthy if it wants to remain in the elections business."

I called our elections office and was told that although Diebold supplies the software and upgrades, our own technicians program our elections, that Diebold technicians have a subordinate role and the machines are checked before each election in a bipartisan process. Alaska basically runs its own elections. Maybe there is nothing to worry about.

Indeed, I never worried whether my vote would count before. Unfortunately, along with millions of others who have read numerous stories about "election glitches" and thrown out registration forms, my confidence in the democratic process nationwide has been shaken. Nowadays, people who somehow gain access to the software can tamper with elections in ways that may be hard or impossible to detect.

Touch-screen computers with no paper trails have received the most attention, and our optical scanners have the advantage of paper ballots that can be recounted. Under Alaska law, however, this only occurs if results are very close, within 0.5 percent. Citizens can pay for a recount if the margin is wider. But under new Alaska rules, the ballots are run through the machines again, instead of being hand counted. If citizens pay $10,000 for a statewide recount because they don't trust the computer tally, they deserve a hand count. Canada still counts all its ballots by hand, and anyone can watch.

I don't doubt the integrity of the staff that runs our elections, nor of our candidates. However, along with many others I have concluded that the people now in power do not play fair, and that there might be an effort to tamper with the election in key states. The evidence for this can't be presented in a short op-ed. In any case, in theory this should be a bipartisan issue; over the decades both parties have been guilty of election fraud. Election officials in every state should be prepared for would-be hackers, but mostly we do not hear about such efforts; we hear instead about replacing old machinery with new machinery. In my view, that fails to get at the reality of the problem this country is facing.

Alaska is a special case because it has indeed been in the forefront of election reform. After talking to long-term election officials I am confident that we are better prepared than most states. But I'd like to see Alaska officials address the question of safeguards against hackers more publicly, which would bolster our confidence and serve as a deterrent. We might take additional steps, such as adopting the suggestion of many computer experts to do an automatic hand recount of a statistically significant percentage of ballots.

Meanwhile, I hope that if there is any discrepancy between polling data and the final election results, citizens will request and, if need be, pay for a recount.

• Nina Mollett is a freelance writer in Juneau.

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