Saturday, February 25, 2006

Early Hurricane Season in Florida

Those of us who have been following the news about global warming are worried about the upcoming hurricane season.  But now another storm is brewing in Florida, and it has nothing to do with global warming.  

The storm is being generated by Black Box Voting, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501c(3) organization. We are the official consumer protection group for elections, funded by citizen donations."  They have released a report of their inspection of voting machine logs from Palm Beach, Volusia, and Broward County, used in the November 2, 2004 elections.  Their report shows that the logs contain over 100,000 error messages.  In addition, the logs show many votes were recorded in October 2004, even though the specific machines were not used for early elections.  
After investing over $7,000 and waiting nine months for the records, Black Box Voting discovered that the voting machine logs contained approximately 100,000 errors. According to voting machine assignment logs, Palm Beach County used 4,313 machines in the Nov. 2004 election. During election day, 1,475 voting system calibrations were performed while the polls were open, providing documentation to substantiate reports from citizens indicating the wrong candidate was selected when they tried to vote.

Another disturbing find was several dozen voting machines with votes for the Nov. 2, 2004 election cast on dates like Oct. 16, 15, 19, 13, 25, 28 2004 and one tape dated in 2010. These machines did not contain any votes date-stamped on Nov. 2, 2004. [...]

The Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, Arthur Anderson, said that his staff had looked into the problem and that the votes were normal, it's just that the dates somehow changed.  [...]
"The votes were normal, it's just that the dates somehow changed."  If that was intended to be reassuring, I would say Anderson failed rather miserably.  If, as he says, his staff looked into it, then there should be a written report.  Anderson should say to the journalist, "We prepared a report, and I would be happy to send you a copy," or something like that.

Google News lists about 100 news articles that reference the Black Box Voting article.  Most of these are reprints of an Associated Press article dated 2/23/2006, by Brian Skoloff.  The AP article was picked up mostly by small organizations, although some of the big media outlets, such as The Washington Post, also printed it.  A couple of conservative sites printed it as well, including Town Hall and The Conservative Voice.  Another news article on the subject appeared in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, dated 2/24/2006, by Kevin Connolly.  

Both news articles are disappointing, although they live up to the usual journalistic standards.  

The AP writer, in a superficial effort to be fair and balanced, contacted the spokesperson for the manufacturer of the voting machines, and asked for a reply:
Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer disputed the findings, saying the company's machines worked properly. Sequoia's machines are used in five Florida counties and in 21 states.

"There was a fine election in November 2004," Shafer said.

She said many of the errors in the computer logs could have resulted from voters improperly inserting their user cards into the machines. The remaining errors would not affect the vote results because each unit has a backup system, she said.
The problem with that, is that there is no analysis of the adequacy of Sequoia's response.  The Black Box Voting article indeed does cite voting card errors, but that is only one type of error that they document.  There are many more kinds of error reported, and most of them have nothing to do with the voting cards.  Furthermore, a reasonably inquisitive reporter could wonder how it is that the machines handle these card errors, and what the procedures are for responding to the errors.  One might wonder why the logs do not show what was done to correct the error.  Furthermore, the respons that "The remaining errors would not affect the vote results because each unit has a backup system" is inadequate.  How does that address the problem of incorrect date stamps?  

Many such errors that Black Box Voting reported simply are not addressed in the AP article.  For eample:
Polls closed and results report messages would be expected to appear on every voting machine at the end of the voting cycle, but these revealed problems with poll worker training and procedures at the administrative/training level. Some logs reported one report printed, some two, three, four or five, and several not only had no results tape printed but showed no closing of the polls. (Closing the polls tells the voting machine not to accept any more votes).

Card encryption bad and Card read fail errors also appeared, with the encryption error message the more frequent of the two.
Some logs show that no results were printed, indicating that there is no paper record of the votes that the machine recorded.  Some show that the machine was not properly shut down at the end of the polling session.  That would not neceassirly be a problem, if all the votes had reliable date stamps; and vote recorded after the polls were closed could be discarded.  But as we have seen, the date stamps are not reliable.  I would like to think that a vigilant reporter would notice this, and ask about it.

Likewise, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel article is only a superficial report.  They quote a Volusia County official:
Volusia officials said the charges are groundless and questioned Harris' credibility.

"If you wish hard enough for a problem, your mind can imagine it," said former Volusia County Election Supervisor Deanie Lowe, who ran the 2004 election.

"I don't know of any election or of any voting system she has ever programmed, so she does not understand the situation. . . . She doesn't know what she's talking about."
I think it is fine to give the County officials a chance to respond, but the reporter could do better than that, by pressing for specifics.  Lowe's response is a sweeping rejection of all claims, based upon a vague dismissal of the credibility of the Balck Box Voting director, Bev Harris.  Vague ad hominem attacks tell us nothing.  I want to know what the county officials have to say about the individual error messages.  I want to know what happens when error messages occur while votes are being cast.  Are poll workers aware of the errors?  Is there a log kept by poll workers, showing when the errors occurred, what was done in response, and which poll workers responded?  Is there a policy and procedures manual that specifies how these situations are handled?  If so, how can citizens get access to that manual?  What does it say a poll worker should do, if, for example, a voting machine reports a card encryption error?  

Bloggers have been commenting on this, typically with a high degree of skepticism.  For example, an IT guy, Truthspew, writes:
Can a president elected through fraudulent means be tossed out?

Because Black Box Voting is really going gangbusters identifying serious election hanky panky.

For example, while I find the grammar and syntactical skills of the journalists at the Associated Press to be very disappointing, this article ineloquently states what the problems encountered happened to be.

Even during the 2000 Judicial Fiat we knew something was wrong. Same happened in 2004 and Dubya's plunging numbers only reinforce the notion that something is seriously rotten in Denmark.
Elisabeth, writing on Infomanic, picked up on the story, and got a useless comment:

Um, Elisabeth. We need to talk. The DUmmie FUnnies has LONG chronicled the foibles of the veracity challenged Bev Harris. Even the Democrat Underground has BANNED her from their leftwing site. Check out our December 2004 archivies of the DUmmie FUnnies and then do a search on the MANY references to Bev Harris and that should get you up to speed on the whole Black Box Voting thing.

The only thing Bev Harris and Black Box Voting are really good for is as a reliable source for comedy material and for that we thank her.---P.J.

Again, attacking Bev Harris may be interesting, but it is a different story.  We need to see an analysis of the specific claims made by Black Box Voting, and a credible explanation of each claim.  Harris provided the actual logs -- the raw data -- that were used by Black Box voting.  If someone wants to complain about her reporting, that person needs to look at the logs and explain what all those error messages mean, and show why they should be disregarded.    

Independent Report picks up on the story, and points out:
Does this sway the election results any? No, probably not. However, we find it curious that the voting machine manufacturers fought, kicking and screaming, against providing their source code or the machine's capabilities. "Trade secrets" they claimed, while also claiming the machines worked wonderfully well and could not be sabotaged. Well, we know they can be hacked pretty easily, and these irregularities point to some fishy business going on somewhere.
Bev Harris does not claim to know if election results would have been any different had these errors not occurred.  From the AP artiicle:
However, Harris said it was impossible to determine what information was altered or if votes were shifted among candidates.
That, in itself, is newsworthy.  The fact is, the results of the election cannot be verified, because the machines do a lousy job of telling us what actually happened on voting day.  As one comment states here:
I started reading the actual log files... as far as I can tell, it doesn't look like the numbers were manipulated to benefit a specific candidate. It does look like the company is totally inept, and isn't qualified to count jellybeans.
Some people read the Black Box voting article and concluded that there were problems, but the problems probably did not change the election results.  Others looked at the same article and concluded that the problems do indicate election fraud, such as this post at What a Mockery: Concrete Evidence that 2004 Vote was Rigged in Florida.  Some echo the report, and imply that the report indicates fraud, but do not state that explicitly; Ranting and Venting: Florida Voting Machine Logs Reveal Anomalies, by Mindwolf,  is an example of this approach.  
It seems like all this work the GOP is doing is just to make it easier to stage an election so they can seize power and make it look like it was legal.
Others merely report on the findings, without adding anything; presumably, they are content to let readers draw their own conclusions.  For example, Rob Galgano, at The Great Leap Forward, does exactly that.  In a way, that approach is preferable to the approach taken by news writers who provide a half-hearted attempt at being fair and balanced, but no analysis of their findings.

What I notice about this situation, is that the Black Box Voting article, and the news stories about the findings by the Black Box Voting (BBV) organization, both illustrate similar concepts.  What BBV found, is that one of the fundamental guarantors of our democracy -- accurate vote counting -- is no longer credible.  Similarly, another fundamental guarantor of our democracy -- good journalism -- suffers from a credibility problem.  Both of these problems are serious, but having the two together is especially bad.  Together, the lack of credible voting, and the lack of credible journalism, threaten to create a new storm system in our political ecosystem.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
E-mail a link that points to this post:

You rock. I like your writing style....And your evenhanded analysis.

I read dailykos.com, and I must say, even though I often agree with sentiments expressed there, the place has been overrun with people talking about how everything Bev Harris publishes should be completely disregarded because she is an egomaniac etc..

I think you do a good job separating the two issues:
attacking Bev Harris may be interesting, but it is a different story. We need to see an analysis of the specific claims made by Black Box Voting, and a credible explanation of each claim. Harris provided the actual logs -- the raw data -- that were used by Black Box voting. If someone wants to complain about her reporting, that person needs to look at the logs and explain what all those error messages mean, and show why they should be disregarded.
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