Hacking Democracy

Farhad Manjoo of Salon reviews the HBO Documentary, Hacking Documentary. With all the unsubstantiated claims that are being accepted uncritically on some liberal blogs, it is good to read that this documentary is factual. Here’s a portion of the review:

Computer security is not an easy topic to explore on film, but “Hacking Democracy” conveys the danger in a remarkably simple manner. It does so by focusing on the slipperiness of one company, Diebold, a leading provider of touch-screen machines that has long been Harris’ chief target. Diebold has all you could ask for in a corporate enemy — ties to the Republican Party, a history of both lying to and currying favor with officials, a brusque and secretive posture in its dealings with critics and the press, and, worst of all, a pattern of technological ineptitude so startling you sometimes wonder if the people who work there are trying to sabotage the vote. The problem, Harris makes clear, isn’t just that electronic voting technology is inherently untrustworthy — the scary thing is that we’re getting bad technology from people who act oblivious to the danger. Either they don’t know how vulnerable their equipment is (which they should, as various studies have discovered alarming security flaws), or they know and aren’t admitting it. Neither scenario inspires confidence. (Diebold alleges that “Hacking Democracy” is riddled with “inaccurate reporting,” and it has called on HBO to cancel the broadcast.)

The film’s other virtue is its commitment to the facts. Regular readers know that I’ve frequently criticized people in the election-reform movement for making claims that they don’t have evidence to back up — especially that George W. Bush stole the 2004 presidential election, an allegation that, as I’ve argued before, casts any effort to repair our elections as little more than a hobbyhorse of the far left. “Hacking Democracy” criticizes the 2004 race (as I have as well), but the film doesn’t argue that Kerry won, and, in the main, it avoids conjuring the vote-stealing conspiracies that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Mark Crispin Miller and others saw in 2004. “It’s not quite as simple a picture,” Harris says of theories that the GOP has the voting companies in its back pocket. “The state of Maryland and the state of Georgia have Democrats very tightly wed to using the Diebold system, and it’s the Republicans who are fighting against it there. And in my own home county, King County, Washington, it’s the Democrats who are pushing these systems and the Republicans who are a little bit skeptical.”

Indeed, more than partisan mischief, “Hacking Democracy” really documents a parade of electoral ineptitude stretching from sea to shining sea. Here and there you find well-meaning officials and outside groups trying to make sure the vote goes well — but to watch this film is to see that too many county-level functionaries who run elections believe that covering their asses, rather than assuring an accurate vote, is the real point of the game. In one scene, Harris and her friends show up at the elections office in Volusia County, Fla., a couple of weeks after the 2004 vote. They find a garbage bag sitting outside the county’s warehouse, and when Harris tears it open she sees “poll tapes” — each voting machine’s printed tally of how many votes it recorded on Election Day — floating about in the muck. “I would think … you would be very concerned about this,” Harris says to Deanie Lowe, Volusia’s elections supervisor. “I mean, you can’t throw away polling place tapes … that are signed by six poll workers and put them in the shredder. I think we all understand that.” But Lowe offers no explanation. One county employee dismisses the problem, sputtering to Harris, “Basically you’re making a molehill out of a mountain.”

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