Journalism and Current Events Toolkit (Document)
Meet the Correspondent: Rick Karr (Document)
PROTESTORS: Cheaters! Cheaters! Cheaters!
RICK KARR: IT ALL STARTED IN FLORIDA, AFTER THE TWO-THOUSAND PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION…
PROTESTORS: Every vote counts! Every vote counts!
RICK KARR: THE ANGRY VOTERS … THE ETERNAL RECOUNT … AND THOSE DIMPLED AND HANGING CHADS PROMPTED CONGRESS TO SET ASIDE THREE BILLION DOLLARS … SO THAT STATES COULD REPLACE THEIR OLD VOTING MACHINES – WHICH IN SOME CASES HAD BEEN IN USE FOR FIFTY YEARS.
THE SOLUTION … WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MACHINES LIKE THIS ONE. THEY WERE MODERN. DIGITAL. THEY HAD TOUCH SCREENS. THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE FOOLPROOF … AND RELIABLE. THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO MAKE VOTING AS EASY AS TAKING A HUNDRED BUCKS OUT OF AN A-T-M. ACCORDING TO THESE TWO MEN, MOST OF THAT … IS BUNK.
ANDREW APPEL … AND EDWARD FELTEN ARE PROFESSORS OF COMPUTER SCIENCE AT PRINCETON. THEY AND THEIR STUDENTS HAVE SPENT THE BETTER PART OF THE LAST DECADE SHOWING JUST HOW EASY IT IS TO MAKE VOTING MACHINES LIKE THIS ONE – WHICH IS USED IN PARTS OF NEVADA, PENNSYLVANIA, AND VIRGINIA – DO THINGS THAT THEY WEREN'T DESIGNED TO DO....
RICK KARR: So why on earth would somebody want to take a voting machine and make it play Pac-Man?
ED FELTEN: Well, it’s really to prove a point that these machines can do anything that people program them to do. So that means maybe count the votes wrong, that means maybe erase votes, let people vote twice or something as wild as playing Pac-Man.
RICK KARR: THE PRINCETON TEAM'S SHOWN THAT ALL OF THOSE THINGS CAN BE DONE. TAKE THIS MACHINE, WHICH IS USED BY ABOUT FOUR MILLION REGISTERED VOTERS IN MARYLAND. FOUR YEARS AGO, FELTEN AND HIS STUDENTS WROTE SOFTWARE FOR IT THAT SECRETLY SHIFTED VOTES FROM ONE CANDIDATE TO ANOTHER IN A SIMULATED ELECTION. AND THEN THE PROGRAM ERASED ALL OF THE EVIDENCE – INCLUDING ITSELF. ALL THAT YOU NEED TO INSTALL SOFTWARE LIKE THIS IS THE KIND OF MEMORY CARD THAT YOU'D USE IN A LAPTOP.
ANDREW APPEL: So once the fraudulent software is written into this memory card, you stick it into that slot and now the operating system inside the computer will copy the fraudulent software into the memory of the computer just as you would at home when you install software into your computer.
ED FELTEN: It's like an upgrade.
ANDREW APPEL: It’s a software upgrade. In this case, it’s a fraudulent software upgrade. The same memory card can also SPREAD a vote-rigging program from machine to machine – like a virus.
RICK KARR: Now if I want to do something like that, do I basically have to have the equivalent of a Princeton computer science degree? I mean, what level of knowledge do I need to have if I want to do that?
ANDREW APPEL: You might need to have a level of knowledge roughly equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in computer science. And there’s tens of thousands of people that get bachelor’s degrees of computer science in this country every year for the last 20 years.
RICK KARR: Theoretically the IT guy in my office might have the skills necessary to mess with one of these.
ED FELTEN: Yah.
KARR: EVEN IF NOBODY HAS MESSED WITH THE MACHINES – AND THERE'S NO EVIDENCE THAT ANYONE'S ACTUALLY TIPPED AN ELECTION – THEY'RE JUST COMPUTERS, AND THEY HAVE BUGS. LAST YEAR, IN A TOWN IN VIRGINIA, FOR EXAMPLE, VOTING MACHINES COUNTED MORE VOTES THAN THERE WERE VOTERS. ELECTION OFFICIALS NEVER FIGURED OUT WHY. IN TWO-THOUSAND-EIGHT, THEN-NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR JOHN CORZINE COULDN'T CAST HIS PRIMARY VOTE BECAUSE ALL OF THE MACHINES IN HIS PRECINCT HAD CRASHED. HE HAD TO COME BACK LATER.
GOV. JON CORZINE: They got the machines rebooted, which we all have problems with our computers once in awhile.
RICK KARR: Nearly fifty million Americans cast their votes on machines like these.They're used exclusively in six states, from Maryland to Louisiana … and in parts of ten others. Felten says the problem is … there's no way to know for sure what's going on inside these machines.
ED FELTEN If you’re a voter or an election worker or a judge in the case of a recount afterward, you have no way of knowing exactly what did happen. All you know is that the voter came in and pushed some buttons on the screen and at the end of the day, there was some count recorded.
RICK KARR: In other words, there's no paper trail for election officials to double-check in the event of a close count. The better alternative, Felten says, is to have voters mark paper ballots … which are then optically scanned by computers – a system that's used from Alaska and California … to New York State.
ED FELTEN That is really the gold standard. It’s the thing you need. And this machine has no way of creating that record. So there’s no way to fix this by changing the software or putting better security seals on it or anything like that.
RICK KARR: So the bottom line then is, no paper trail, the machine’s no good.
ED FELTEN: That’s right. You shouldn’t be using it in an important election if there isn’t some kind of paper record that the voter actually sees.
For the Princeton scientists, these aren't just academic concerns: Like most of the five million registered voters in New Jersey, they cast their ballots on machines like THIS one.
RICK KARR: So how did you actually get your hands on this thing?
ANDREW APPEL: How do you get anything these days? I bought it at an internet auction. I picked this one up for $16.50.
Announcer: Radio Shack’s famous under $600 system!
RICK KARR: IN COMPUTER TERMS, THIS MACHINE IS AN ANTIQUE: IT USES THE SAME CHIP THAT POWERED THE RADIO SHACK T-R-S-EIGHTY COMPUTER – STATE-OF-THE-ART … IN THE LATE SEVENTIES. ALL THAT IT TAKES TO MAKE THIS ONE STEAL VOTES … IS A CHIP THAT COSTS AROUND A BUCK, WHICH YOU JUST POP INTO A SOCKET ON THE MAIN COMPUTER BOARD.
ANDREW APPEL: And from the outside the ROM chips look exactly the same.
RICK KARR: APPEL ACTUALLY DEMONSTRATED THAT HACK IN A COURT CASE BROUGHT BY VOTERS WHO WANT NEW JERSEY TO ABANDON THE MACHINES.
ANDREW APPEL: So this is the legitimate computer program and here is one of my fake ROM chips.
RICK KARR: When you tested this machine, what was the reaction of the company that built it and of the state officials who bought it?
ANDREW APPEL: Well they got very defensive of course. They say just because some professor can replace a ROM chip in laboratory conditions doesn’t mean that votes in the real world are not safe. But of course, these machines in the real world are stored in church basements before the election, in elementary schools, all sorts of places where anybody can walk by with a screwdriver and pull off this panel and replace ROM chips.
RICK KARR: APPEL AND FELTEN SAY … SOME STATES HAVE ACTUALLY REFORMED THEIR VOTING MACHINERY THE RIGHT WAY. TAKE MINNESOTA WHERE VOTERS MARK PAPER BALLOTS INSTEAD OF USING TOUCH SCREENS. WHEN THE COUNT IN THE 2008 SENATE RACE BETWEEN REPUBLICAN NORM COLEMAN … AND DEMOCRAT AL FRANKEN CAME DOWN TO JUST A COUPLE HUNDRED VOTES, ELECTION OFFICIALS COULD GO BACK TO THE ORIGINAL BALLOTS FOR THE RECOUNT. DISPUTED BALLOTS WERE POSTED ONLINE FOR ANYONE TO SEE. ELECTION REFORMERS SAY THE COUNT WAS VERIFIABLE AND THE PROCESS WAS TRANSPARENT. A RECENT REPORT BY NEW YORK UNIVERSITY'S BRENNAN CENTER ALSO PRAISED CALIFORNIA … AND NORTH CAROLINA … FOR NEW VOTING LAWS.
RICK KARR: THE SCIENTISTS SAY THEY WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT NOBODY MAKES THOSE MISTAKES AGAIN. SO THEY'RE TEACHING THEIR STUDENTS – LIKE THE PRINCETON GRAD WHO DID THE PAC-MAN HACK – TO KEEP ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
ED FELTEN: What are the security issues here? How do you fix them? Can you fix them? What else should you be doing?
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