View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Just Asking Questions 

Back to the Fever Swamps. You might remember a few months ago, when the head of Diebold, based in Ohio, turned out to be a Republican committed to President Bush's re-election. Almost immediately, the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic party, the one that produces the delegates, began accusing him of plotting to steal the election by tampering with the programming of the electronic voting machines.

I'm not normally very hard on the Rocky. Of the three business papers in the area, theirs is indisputably the best. Which makes the appearance of this uncharacteristically sloppy article on Saturday all the more bizarre.

A Colorado company under contract to ensure that the nation's touch-screen voting machines are accurate has been a substantial contributor to Republican candidates and groups.

The donations linked to CIBER Inc. are by no means against the law, but have raised some eyebrows with the approach of a hotly contested 2004 presidential election and the recent discovery of flaws in the ATM-like machines that will be used by millions of voters.

At Greenwood Village-based CIBER, employees and some spouses have donated more than $72,000 to GOP candidates and groups during the 2001-2002 and 2003-2004 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Democratic donations linked to the firm were $3,000 during that time.

Companies can't give this kind of money to campaigns. They can't even give this kind of money to parties, directly. The company itself doesn't appear to have given anything to any candidate. If you think this is a fine distinction, consider that the Edwards campaign had to return thousands of dollars laundered through employees of an overly-enthusiastic law firm. And consider how you would feel hearing that "the State of Colorado" had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Ken Salazar's campaign. It hasn't of course, but its employees have.

Such donations from CIBER are "perfectly legitimate," said Rebecca Mercuri, a computer security expert with Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study.

"What should raise eyebrows is that our U.S. government and state governments allow this to happen," she said. "There's been nothing done to dissuade the perception that there's partisan control over the voting process."

There's also been nothing done to dissuade the perception that the moon is made of green cheese, that those little people actually live inside your television, and that dolphins are the descendents of advanced ancient civilizations.

There's also been nothing done to dissuade the perception that Rebecca Mercuri might have an axe to grind. Ms. Mercuri is a "computer security expert," to be sure. She has also spent about 15 years studying various voting systems, and has conceived a particular dislike for electronic systems. This isn't to say she likes older systems any better. She distrusts them enough that the Democratic Party invited her to testify for them in the 11th Curcuit in Bush v. Gore. So she's got two reasons to dislike CIBER, neither of which makes it into the article.

Now I have to agree that electronic machines should print out a receipt for the voter. I understand the notion that, in a world where every election judge had photographic memory, such a system might compromise ballot secrecy. But it's a far cry from "it would be a good idea," to "these guys are turning us into Venezuela."

Later on, the article comes to much the same conclusion:

Still, Douglas Jones, associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, said it's fair for people to raise questions about such contributions, given CIBER's role as a voting software tester.

But he doesn't think the donations should be seen as evidence that CIBER is engaged in partisan mischief - given that good citizens in a democracy are expected to be active participants in the political process.

"It's fine for it to raise eyebrows," he said of the CIBER donations. "I'd hate for it to generate conspiracy theories."

But Jones does worry about this: If there is a problem with the voting software and votes can't be 100 percent verified, then questions would arise about CIBER's partisan leanings.

"I'm not convinced that the system is bankrupt. I'm convinced we're at risk," Jones said

In other words, there's nothing really the matter here, but people are distrustful enough of the process that they might think there is. The author goes on to make the following points:

  • Voting-machine testing accounted for less that 0.1% of CIBER's 2003 revenues.
  • There's no connection between the work being done, and employees donating money
  • The article fails to note if any employees actually engaged in the testing made any donations at all
  • Two other companies are also authorized to certify the voting machines
  • State election officials, not the Federal Government, give that authorization

Makes you wonder why they bothered to green-light this article in the first place.

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