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Easily Hacked Voting Systems to be Used in MA Special Election for the U.S. Senate

Nathan Barker and Brad Friedman
Gouverneur Times
Saturday, January 16th, 2010

BOSTON, MA – Next Tuesday’s Special Election for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts looks to be coming down to the wire. Surprising pundits in what had previously been thought to be a cakewalk for State Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate hoping to fill the seat of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, Republican state Senator Scott Brown has come on strong in the final days of the campaign.

But as the election looms, tempers flare, money is poured into the contest from all sides, and Democrats sweat out what should have been a safe seat for them – a Democrat named Kennedy has held that particular seat for more than the last 50 years – questions about whether the election results can be trusted have already emerged in a race where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

As the 60th “filibuster-proof” Democratic U.S. Senate seat hangs in the balance – and the party’s healthcare reform bill and other key legislative hopes along with it – fears are mounting that the final vote tallies could be as questionable as they were in the recent NY-23 Special Election for the U.S. House. Perhaps even more so.

The electronic voting systems used in Massachusetts are notoriously plagued with problems and vulnerabilities, and are in violation of federal voting system standards. Moreover, they are sold, programmed, and maintained by a company with a disturbing criminal background.

The outcome couldn’t be more important, and the race, according to a number of pre-election polls, couldn’t be closer. Coakley began running in September, 2009 with a strong lead over Brown, her main opponent. But that trend has significantly changed in the last month leaving Coakley with a thin 2 point margin over Brown, according to a recent poll from Republican pollster Rasmussen. Another more recent survey, from a Democratic-leaning outfit, gives Coakley a more comfortable 8 point edge over Brown.

Still, the very real possibility that a Republican could win the seat has many in Washington sweating on the eve of the Special Election. All three candidates – Joseph Kennedy (no relation to Ted), a Libertarian running on the Independent Party ticket could also throw a wrench into the works – and their supporters are pulling out all the last minutes stops. But could we see another repeat of last November’s U.S. House Special Election in New York, where questions still persist about the tabulation of the race and the failed and faulty voting systems that voters were forced to use?

The Diebold electronic voting machines to be used in more than 90% of the state’s districts are the same demonstrably unreliable ballot scanning systems that were seen being hacked in the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary Hacking Democracy. The rest of the machines used in the Bay State are made by Sequoia Voting System, Inc., the same manufacturer whose machines were “misconfigured,” to switch votes in Erie County, NY’s Nov. 3, 2009 election and which have failed, and even been hacked, in a number of cases around the country.

Making matters worse, the company who sells, services and programs the Diebold optical-scan paper ballot systems to be used next week, LHS Associates, has a disturbing criminal background, and has admitted to tampering illegally with voting systems during past elections.

As seen in the climactic finale of Hacking Democracy, due to undocumented “interpreted code” in the system, included by Diebold in violation of federal voting system guidelines, the Diebold Accuvote op-scan system is easily hacked and votes can be flipped in such a way that the tampering would likely never be discovered.

The vulnerability, easily exploited by Finnish computer security expert Harri Hursti in the film, resulted in flipped results for a mock election held in Leon County, FL several years ago. At the time, news of the hack sent shockwaves throughout the e-voting industry, and among state and federal election officials. But the federally certified machines were never decertified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, despite the discovery of the code in violation of federal standards. That code, allowing this simple exploitation, still remains on the systems to be used in next week’s special election in Massachusetts.

The key to the exploit is access to the scanner’s memory cards. Those sensitive cards contain the programming instructions for how the machines should read paper ballots as they pass through it. They also track the tally of votes. In Hursti’s hack, he was able to make a slight change to the memory cards’ programming instructions which flipped the results in such a way that only a manual hand count of every ballot would have revealed the manipulation.

The machines and cards are often accessed by both election officials and the private vendors who program and maintain them. In Massachusetts, as in most of New England, an outfit by the name of LHS Associates services the machines.

The company has, to put it generously, a dubious record.

In 1990, Ken Hajjar, the Director of Sales and Marketing for LHS Associates – a childhood friend of company owner John Silvestro – was arrested and pled guilty to charges of selling narcotics. He was given a 12-month sentence, according to documents received via a public records request by the non-partisan election watchdog organization, BlackBoxVoting.org (BBV).

LHS Associates programs “every single voting machine in New Hampshire, Connecticut, almost all of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine,” BBV founder Bev Harris reported after releasing the documents.

Despite the dangers posed by accessing memory cards, LHS staff members have admitted to regularly opening up voting machines and swapping memory cards, during actual elections.

In 2006, Hajjar himself told Connecticut’s Talk Nation Radio that his company considers such activities to be routine, even in jurisdictions where accessing memory cards is strictly in violation of election procedures.

“I mean, I don’t pay attention to every little law,” Hajjar admitted to TNR’s Dori Smith. “We would have a whole bunch of machines in the trunk in the car and we hope the phone doesn’t ring, but if it does, somebody tells us where to go, we replace the machine and then we go on our merry way.”

One such illegal memory card swap by LHS took place in Montville, CT, during the recount of the 2nd Congressional District race in 2006.

Hajjar found himself in further hot water in 2007 when, after he’d left bizarre and obscene comments on a story concerning Diebold at The BRAD BLOG, he was barred from working at all in the state of Connecticut by Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz.

Failures of Diebold’s voting systems have become legendary. In 2004, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) quietly issued an advisory that the Diebold GEMS tabulator system features a “vulnerability… due to an undocumented backdoor account, which could [sic: allow] a local or remove authenticated malicious user [sic: to] modify votes”. The advisory would not be publicly reported until late 2005.

In 2006, Princeton University found it was able to easily implant a vote-swapping virus onto the company’s touch-screen voting system memory cards that could pass itself from machine to machine, flipping an entire election, across an entire county, without detection in the process. The startling hack was reported nationally, and even demonstrated live on Fox News. Still, little if anything was done by federal or state officials to prevent the situation from happening in jurisdictions where the same voting machines are still used today.

In 2008, the Diebold optical-scan system was discovered to have simply dropped hundreds of ballots from its final results in Humboldt County, CA. The failure was due to a years-old bug in the Diebold voting system, which officials in Humboldt hadn’t been made aware of.

A subsequent investigation by California’s Secretary of State Debra Bowen revealed a number of flaws in the voting systems’ audit log functions. Voting machine companies have long maintained that any tampering with machines would be easily revealed by an examination of such logs. However, Bowen’s investigation discovered that those logs – which are required to be “permanent” records of all activities on the machines – could be easily deleted and/or modified. Moreover, it was discovered that ballots themselves could be deleted from the system without notice in the logs, or even to system administrators. A Diebold spokesman would be forced to admit at a public hearing last year that all Diebold voting systems contain a number of the flaws discovered by the state of California.

As to the Sequoia systems used in parts of Massachusetts, the Gouverneur Times filed a lengthy exposé on that company’s storied history of failures following the NY-23 Special Election debacle where their optical-scan systems failed in a number of counties, leading to confusion, and zero votes reported for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in a number of precincts.

In Massachusetts, the state mandates that paper ballots be preserved according to a secure chain of custody. However, the state has no threshold or automatic system to require a hand-count of those ballots. If the computer-generated tallies are accepted as legitimate, the actual paper ballots will never be counted or checked for accuracy unless one of the candidates files a petition. The petition filing must occur within 6 days of the election, requires at least 10 signatures per ward and “The petitioner must file a separate recount petition in each ward of a city or precinct of a town in which he desires a recount.”

The only way to guarantee accurate election results in Massachusetts is for a candidate to request a hand-count of all paper ballots in each town in the state – within 6 days of the election. Otherwise, the results of what could be an exceedingly close election, for an extraordinarily important U.S. Senate seat, could end up going to the candidate who didn’t actually receive the most votes.

View the original article at Gouverneur Times

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