Monday, August 9, 2004

Rolling Down the Highway, Looking Out for Flawed Elections

By Adam Cohen, New York Times, August 8, 2004


Ms. Harris's visit to Mohave County was part of a monthlong trip in which she and her deputy, Andy Stephenson, traveled to 10 states, investigating flaws in electronic voting and giving on-the-fly computer security tutorials.

The trip started out in Ohio, where they knocked on the doors of employees of Diebold, one of the largest and most criticized voting machine companies. It ended in late July in Las Vegas at Defcon, a hackers' convention, where the consensus was that cracking a voting machine might not be so hard.

Ms. Harris, the director of Black Box Voting (the Web address is, has made herself public enemy No. 1 for voting machine manufacturers, and some elections officials, with her hard-edged attacks on electronic voting and her investigative style. (She acknowledges that at one point in Ohio, she and Mr. Stephenson hid in the bushes with a microphone, eavesdropping on Diebold workers.)

But there is no denying that Ms. Harris, a onetime literary publicist from the Seattle area, is responsible for digging up some of the most disturbing information yet to surface about the accuracy and integrity of electronic voting.

"I wouldn't want to play her role," says Aviel Rubin, a Johns Hopkins computer science professor and a leading critic of electronic voting. "But we're all better off that she's out there."

When they're in road-trip mode, Ms. Harris and Mr. Stephenson are a high-tech public-interest group on wheels. With a laptop computer connected to the Internet by cellphone, they toggle between MapQuest, hunting down directions, and Google, searching for the latest electronic voting information. The phone rings frequently with leads to be investigated. As they drove through San Bernardino, Calif., Ms. Harris took a call from a small-town official in Indiana, who claimed a voting machine salesman picked up a top elections official in his county in a limousine and took her on a shopping spree.

In the San Bernardino County elections office, Ms. Harris asked the registrar of voters to explain why, in the presidential primary in March, the vote totals went down in the days after the election. He explained that the county's electronic voting system had faulty software that accidentally held on to some test votes, and added them to the real votes that were cast. He insists that the story showed that the system worked well, since the extra votes were eventually found. Ms. Harris is skeptical.

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