It is not what you want to hear about the people entrusted with counting our votes:
• “Less security than I have on my home computer.”
• “The appearance isn’t good.”
• “The facts available match an ‘election hacking’ incident . . . while matching no legitimate processing procedure.”
• “Dismal record in implementing reasonable computer software security measures to protect election data from improper access or change.”
Those are the opinions of two computer experts who have carefully examined how Pima County runs its vote-counting operation.
And even if you don’t understand the language of computer code – and I don’t – there are enough questions to generate a lot of concern about how accurately your votes have been counted.
How bad is all of this? Who knows?
There is a possibility of outright fraud, with vote totals changed or totals for winners and losers flipped. Or the totals may be dead-on accurate with nothing more than unexplained idiosyncrasies in the way computer operators do their job.
The answer may be in computer records that Pima County is refusing to release. Or it may be impossible to ever know with certainty what happened in recent elections.
The poster child for concerns is the May 16, 2006, Regional Transportation Authority election.
Some significant events in the vote-counting for that election are highlighted below in excerpts from a Pima County election report.
The Pima County Democratic Party is suing for access to county databases to try to determine what happened when votes were counted in that and the 2006 fall elections. Among the issues:
• Counting of early ballots started May 10, six days before the election. Votes were counted for about four hours, which probably meant at least 8,000 ballots counted and maybe as many as 12,000.
The tally was saved. Then it was saved again the next morning before counting resumed. Why?
William J. Risner, a lawyer and Democratic activist involved in the lawsuit, asked the county worker under oath why he did that. “He had no explanation for it,” Risner said.
James March, a computer expert who has worked on elections systems, outlined one possibility. In a declaration in the Democrats’ suit, March said someone could have copied the election data to a disk, taken it to another computer, used widely available software to hack it, then returned the disk with hacked data and overwritten the vote count.
The vote totals could have been changed. Or the counts for “Yes” and “No” could have been reversed.
“The facts available match an ‘election hacking’ incident of this sort,” March’s declaration said.
• On May 11, five days before the election, reports were printed that showed early vote totals. If people on either side had known those totals, it would have been invaluable for late campaigning.
Brad Nelson, Pima County elections director, said the reports were printed and “glimpsed at” only to make sure the total number of ballots counted matched the number fed in. The reports then were shredded, Nelson said.
• Early vote total reports also were printed before the 2006 primary election, March wrote. In one race, a “who is winning” report was printed at 3:45 p.m. on the Saturday before the Tuesday election.
At 8:30 p.m. that same Saturday, a “robocall” went out to voters in that race slamming one candidate, March wrote. “We cannot positively link the two actions, but the appearance isn’t good,” he wrote.
Risner is asking for the county database that shows all activity on the election-counting computer.
But Nelson said he doesn’t want to supply that because it would compromise security. “There are passwords and modem numbers in that,” he said.
Risner countered that such information has been released elsewhere and is available on the Internet without security being compromised.
So what does all this mean? Have some winners actually lost and losers won? Have invaluable early vote-counting totals been leaked, allowing a campaign to be tailored at the last minute?
Nelson says absolutely not. There is 24-hour video surveillance of election-counting equipment. There are two-part passwords, and each employee knows only one part. “The level of security in the election division is always evolving and always getting better,” he said.
Risner has doubts. “I don’t know why or where or if,” he said. “We’re not telling anyone it happened. But the way the software works, you don’t see this anywhere else.”
It’s impossible to know who is right and whether anyone actually did anything untoward. But the county’s secrecy – while apparently well-meaning – does nothing to alleviate the concerns.
And when it comes to accurately counting votes, there is no room for any concerns.
Election Summary Report
for May 16, 2006 election, with date, time, action and what it means
05/10/06, 08:21:41, Reset election: Ensures that totals are at zero.
05/10/06, 08:22:08, Printing summary report: Report showing vote totals; all should be zero. Vote counting starts.
05/10/06, 012:27:27, Backed up election to D:\Program Files/pimaconsolidated051606 EARLY DAY1.gbf: Early votes have been counted for about four hours. Totals are saved.
05/10/06, 12:27:38, Previewing Cards Cast Report: Indicates how many ballots went through the scanners.
05/10/06, 12:28:05, Closing GEMS: GEMS is the Global Election Management System software. developed by Diebold Election Systems. Vote counting is over for the day.
05/11/06, 09:55:57, User login: GEMS started.
05/11/06, 09:55:57, Open Election: Consolidated Election, May 16, 2006: Ready to start counting votes.
05/11/06, 09:56:30, Backed up election to D:\Program Files/pimaconsolidated 051606 EARLY DAY1.gbf: Appears to indicate vote totals from the previous day were overwritten.
05/11/06, 09:56:49, Printing summary report: A report showing vote totals was printed.
05/11/06, 10:06:21, Printing summary report: Another report showing vote totals was printed.
05/11/06, 12:06:48, Previewing Cards Cast Report: Looking at a report on the number of early ballots cast. Counting begins again.
05/11/06, 15:23:32, Backed up election to D:\Program Files/pimaconsolidated 051606 EARLY DAY2.gbf: Votes have been counted for about three hours. Totals are saved.
05/11/06, 15:23:46, Closing GEMS:Vote counting is over for the day.
Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. and midnight Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated,” KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and 573-4662.