Can Voting Machines Be Trusted?

An electronic voting machine is demonstrated during a news conference Nov. 22, 2000, in Sacramento, Calif. Nearly one in ten registered voters will be using touch-screen machines in California's historic recall election. AP

Beth Lester of the CBS News Political Unit reports on new allegations about voting fraud that have been stirring up a storm in cyberspace.

A new conspiracy theory is taking hold across the Internet. It goes something like this: Computerized voting machines bought from companies owned by major Bush/Cheney supporters are being used to fix elections all over the country in Republicans' favor.

Sites like votewatch.us and truthout.com have been sounding the alarm for months, and the theory got a mainstream boost last week when Howard Dean said President Bush would be raising money from "the guy who makes voting machines, which doesn't give you much confidence in the electoral process."

Although the content varies somewhat, the conspiracy theory's plot is fairly consistent:

  • First, there are the three companies that make computer voting machines: Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software (ES&S), all of which are owned by big GOP contributors. Walden O'Dell, Diebold's CEO, for example, has signed on as a Bush/Cheney Pioneer, promising to raise at least $100,000 for the campaign.

  • Second are the charges of dirty tricks: Using computer software purchased under proprietary contracts that make it illegal to examine the equipment, votes for Democrats are lost, changed or disqualified.

  • Third are the paybacks: Republicans get into office, perpetuate the fraud and help advance the causes and stuff the pocketbooks of right-wing Americans.

    For evidence, the Web sites cite questions about voting in the 2003 Mississippi and 2002 Georgia gubernatorial elections, early voting problems in Dallas in 2002 and voting irregularities in Broward County, Fla., and Baldwin County, Ala. There are also a number of public officials who have worked for voting machine companies before or after taking office, often in states that have chosen to purchase new electoral equipment. And there's even some academic back-up: studies by Johns Hopkins University and MIT/CalTech's Voting Technology Project both show computerized voting systems have major reliability problems.

    Reacting to the criticism, voting machine companies insist say they have made improvements to the nation's voting systems. More states are using post-Florida "Help America Vote Act" monies to add electronic voting elements to their elections. Iowa will have electronic filing at its caucuses in January and California is considering using touch-screen computers in its March 2004 presidential primary. For some election officials, the attacks are "fear-mongering by a few people who want to go back to the 19th-century way of voting," says Adams County, Colo., Clerk Carol Snyder, quoted in the Denver Post.

    But response and improvements are not assuaging the conspiracy theorists' worries about a larger Republican plot. Web sites are raging with indignation about this perceived injustice. At onlinejournal.com, Ernest Partridge writes: "Might it be possible that, due to GOP control of computer voting machines, the electoral 'fix' is in?" On commondreams.org, a column by Thom Hartman is titled, "If you want to win an election, just control the voting machines." Other sites like blackboxvoting.com. deeolistening.org and crisispapers.org make the same point in a tone that's growing more and more strident.

    Time will tell if the conspiracy theorists are right or if their criticisms are as easily dismissed as the voting machine companies claim. For now, anger with the Bush administration and its role in perceived voting fraud is increasing. And the theorists' concerns, verging on paranoia in some cases, seem to indicate a widespread mistrust that will not be assuaged any time soon. Perhaps it's the reason that Dean's uncompromising anti-Bush stance has been so effective and why Dean felt he could bring this conspiracy into the mainstream.

    By Beth Lester
    • Joel Roberts

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