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March 10th, 2004:

Avi Rubin as election judge

Avi Rubin, well known for his role as electronic voting machine critic, spent yesterday as an election judge in Baltimore County. He wrote about it here, and came away with a much better understanding of the process and the Diebold machines’ flaws. A little taste for you:

In our paper, we described how the smartcards used by these machines had no cryptography on them, and we made the widely criticized claim that a teenager in a garage could manufacture smartcards and use them to vote 20 times. I now believe that this particular attack is not a real threat — at least not in the primary I worked today. We had 9 judges and 5 machines. Whenever a voter took what seemed to be too long, we always had a judge ask them if they needed help, or if something was wrong. Also, the machines make a loud clicking sound when the smartcard is ejected, and we almost always had a judge standing there waiting to collect the card and give the voter a sticker, as they are ushered out.

In general, multiple voting attacks during the election are not likely to work in a precinct such as the one where I worked. Every hour or so, we counted all of the voter authorization cards (different from the smartcards), which were in an envelope taped to the machine, and compared them to the number of votes counted by the machine so far. I believe that if any voter somehow managed to vote multiple times, that it would be detected within an hour. I have no idea what we would do in that situation. In fact, I think we’d have a serious problem on our hands, but at least we would know it.


There were also some security issues that I found to be much worse than I expected. All of the tallies are kept on PCMCIA cards. At the end of the election, each of those cards is loaded onto one machine, designated as the zero machine. (I found it interesting that Diebold numbered the machines 0 through n-1, disproving my notion that they don’t have anyone on board who knows anything about Computer Science.) The zero machine is then connected to a modem, and the tallies are sent to a central place, where they are incorporated with the tallies of other precincts. In our case, the phone line was not working properly, so we went to the backup plan. The zero machine combined all the tallies from the PCMCIA cards that were loaded one at a time onto the machine. It then printed out the final tallies. One copy of that went onto the outside door of the building where there were talliers and poll watchers eagerly waiting. The other was put into a pouch with all of the PCMCIA cards, each wrapped in a printed tally of the machine to which it corresponds, and that pouch was driven by the two head judges to the board of elections office.

The security risk I saw was that Diebold had designated which machine would be the zero machine, and at one point, all of the vote tallies were loaded onto that one machine in memory. That would be the perfect point to completely change the tallies. There is no need to attack all of the machines at a precinct if someone could tamper with the zero machine. In fact, even when the modem is used, it is only the zero machine that makes the call. In the code we examined, that phone call is not protected correctly with cryptography. Perhaps that has been fixed. I was glad to see that the administrator PIN actually used in the election was not the 1111 that we used in our training, and that we had seen in the code.

One thing absolutely amazed me. With very few exceptions, the voters really LOVED the machines. They raved about them to us judges. The most common comment was “That was so easy.” I can see why people take so much offense at the notion that the machines are completely insecure. Given my role today, I just smiled and nodded. I was not about to tell voters that the machines they had just voted on were so insecure. I was curious that voters did not seem to question how their votes were recorded. The voter verifiability that I find so precious did not seem to be on the minds of these voters. One woman did come up to Joy and complain that she wanted a paper ballot to verify. But, Joy managed to convince her that these machines were state of the art and that there was nothing to worry about, which was followed by a smile and a wink in my direction. I just kept quiet, given the circumstances. As an election judge, my job is to make the election work as well as possible, and creating doubts in the voters’ minds at the polls does not figure into my idea of responsible behavior. Perhaps the lightest moment in the day came when one voter standing at his machine asked in the most deadpan voice, “What do I do if it says it is rebooting?” Head judge Marie turned white, and Joy’s mouth dropped. My heart started to beat quickly, when he laughed and said “just kidding.” There was about a two second pause of silence followed by roaring laughter from everyone.

I found the reaction to that joke interesting. Everybody was willing to believe that this had happened, and yet when it became clear that it didn’t, we all felt relief. I’m sure that the other judges would have claimed that this was impossible, and yet, for a brief instant, they all thought it had happened.

The first bit echoes a point Rob has made before, which is that the integrity of the election judges is a big deterrent to attacks on the system. Still, it’s clear that we’re putting a lot of trust into black boxes, and we may never know if someone manages to compromise them. It will be interesting to see how Rubin modifies his criticisms of Diebold now that he has this firsthand experience. Via the Technology Review blog.

UPDATE: Urk. Rubin did his thing last week, on Super Tuesday, not yesterday. My bad. Thanks to Morat for the catch.

Viacom v. EchoStar

It’s another consolidated media catfight.

DISH Network owner EchoStar says it will do “whatever it takes” to soon resolve a fee dispute with Viacom that has darkened several channels for its as many as 9 million satellite TV customers in all 50 states.

EchoStar Communications Corp. pulled the plug on CBS programs in more than a dozen cities Tuesday and also dropped Viacom’s cable channels — including MTV, Nickelodeon and VH1 — from its satellite network.

Though both companies publicly assailed each other after the impasse continued beyond an already extended contract deadline, EchoStar chairman and CEO Charles Ergen said they were still talking.

“We certainly are having negotiations with Viacom,” Ergen said in a conference aired on DISH.

“We had more discussion today. I hope we can get your channels back. We’ll work really hard, nights, weekends, whatever it takes,” he said.

The dispute also left as many as 2 million customers without CBS shows, meaning they could miss the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament carried by Viacom-owned CBS.

“We have customers who are calling and asking, ‘Where’s my CBS?'” EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin said. “It’s understandable that you would be upset if you lose your CBS channel.”

Customers hoping to watch the disrupted channels instead saw a message accusing Viacom of asking for an unreasonable rate increase that would result in higher monthly satellite bills for EchoStar customers.

The disruption is the largest since 2000, when a similar dispute between Time Warner cable and ABC blacked out service to 3.5 million cable customers.

Man, I remember that epic battle. Talk about a Hobson’s choice – who ya gonna root for, AOLTimeWarnerOfBorg, or Disney? I could get away with not giving a rat’s behind now, but back then I was taping “The Practice” and was pretty pissed about the whole thing. At least this time it’s not my provider that’s involved, unlike Pete, who’s getting deprived of “The Daily Show” even as we speak.

UPDATE: The two sides have now kissed and made up, so no one will be deprived of the NCAA Tournament or any other of life’s essentials.

Rodriguez wins squeaker

The final tally is in, and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez has held on to win his hard-fought primary race with Henry Cuellar. This Express News story says the difference is 151 votes, but the SOS page has it at 126, with Rodriguez winning by the tiny margin of 24,334 to 24,208, or 50.13% to 49.87%. No word yet on whether Cuellar might call for a recount.

Looking at the county totals, turnout in Webb County, which Cuellar won 12,713 to 2429, was nearly enough to swamp Rodriguez. Bexar County (San Antonio), cast about 2000 fewer votes in this race (Rodriguez won there by 10,803 to 2733). Overall turnout in Bexar County was 5.66%, compared to Webb’s 28.95%. Lack of a meaningful Presidential primary surely cost Rodriguez, while the prospect of sending a Laredoan to DC boosted Cuellar. Thanks to the primary date moving back a week, Rodriguez was nearly an unanticipated victim of the redistricting fight.

Rodriguez will still have to face a Republican in November (the CD 28 primary there is headed to a runoff between James Hopson and Francisco Canseco), but with nearly five times as many Democratic primary voters as Republican, I’d expect that race to be a lot less close.

Overall turnout was 6.86% on the Democratic side and 5.58% on the GOP side, a bit less than predicted by the SOS for the Dems and about on target for the Reps. As in 2002, when Democratic primary turnout (PDF) was significantly higher than Republican primary turnout (PDF), that won’t mean a thing in November.

UPDATE: Apparently, the SOS is upset about what went down in Zapata County, the last county to report results from this race.

Statement from Secretary of State Geoff Connor regarding reporting of election results in Zapata County:
For Immediate Release
March 10, 2004 Contact: Jennifer Waisath
(512) 463-9981

“I am extremely concerned and disappointed by the reporting of election results in Zapata County. My office made repeated requests for a timely processing of election returns and found local officials unresponsive. While other counties experienced some difficulties with equipment and their vote counts, they were still responsive to our requests for information.

Throughout this process, my office remained in contact not only with local officials but with the Attorney General’s Office.

Of paramount concern is that election results are reported accurately, completely and in a timely fashion so as to ensure confidence in the integrity of our elections.”

The Quorum Report has a bit more:

Sources tell us that the Quorum Report was not the only organization to know the results of the election before the Office of the Secretary of State. That is one of the reasons they have consulted with the AG’s office. Apparently Connor was or is on the verge of requesting Texas Rangers be sent to the county.

Damn. This isn’t over yet. Stay tuned.

Money bridge followup

First, a correction to my earlier post about the money bridge studio in Houston. I received an email from Betty Freedman yesterday who informed me that regular customers settle their tabs monthly rather than at the end of each session, something which makes it easier to pop in and play for an hour. Like pretty much every other bridge entity in the US nowadays, it’s also a smoke-free establishment. I remember when bridge clubs and tournaments had smoking and non-smoking sections, and as with airplanes and restaurants, the distinction was mostly artificial. Anyway, there you have it.

As for poker, I’m afraid it’s bad news. I called the Harris County District Attorney’s office this morning and spoke to a woman who had already fielded a question about poker tournaments. As with Lubbock, a tournament that charged entry fees and awarded prizes to winners would be illegal in Harris County. Don’t despair too much, though. Given the multiple attempts to expand the scope of legal gambling in Texas last spring and the obvious need of more revenue sources, both for school finance reform and general state funding, I will not be at all surprised if this becomes available in a few years.

Baby booming

Texas is the fastest growing state for people under 18.

The new data show that Texas added more than 350,000 residents under 18 between 2000 and 2003, 75,000 more than Florida and 183,000 more than California, the next two fastest-growing states for young people.

Texas’ fastest growth was among children under 5 and between 5 and 13 — it led the nation in both categories. It ranked third in the increase of children between 14 and 17.

“This shows how young Texas is becoming,” said Steve Murdock, state demographer and head of the Texas State Data Center. “I think it’s safe to say we can expect the demand for educational services will be particularly acute in the years ahead.”

Just another thing to keep in mind when and if that special session on school finance reform gets called.

Doggett wins, Bell and Wilson lose

Lots of stuff happening from yesterday’s primaries. Let’s go to the videotape.

The big local news is that Rep. Chris Bell lost to former JP Al Green by a fairly substantial margin.

With all votes counted in the primary for the 9th Congressional District, Green had 66 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Bell in a race that was fought along racial lines. A third candidate — lawyer Beverly Spencer — had 2 percent.

Democrats are already trying to heal the wounds caused by the primary that became contested when Bell was moved into a new district that Republican legislators created last year in hopes of forcing Bell into a race with a strong black Democratic candidate.

Green is the former president of the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

I’m much more surprised by the margin than by the result. I believed it would be a close race, but clearly that wasn’t the case. Congratulations to Judge Green and best of luck in Washington. (Yes, I know, he has a Republican challenger. I’m not the least bit worried about that.)

I’m sorry to see Chris Bell go, but if the tradeoff is seeing Ron Wilson get booted, it’s more than worth it.

For the first time in almost 30 years, District 131 in Houston will have a new representative in the Texas Legislature after Alma Allen upset longtime incumbent Democratic state Rep. Ron Wilson, an often controversial figure who most recently drew fire after siding with Republicans in last year’s acrimonious battle over redistricting.

With all precincts reporting, Allen, a member of the State Board of Education, beat Wilson by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent.

Allen will face no Republican opposition in the November general election.

According to one of his fellow Democratic state representatives, Wilson lost the seat he has held for the past 27 years because he lost touch with the needs of the people of his district. “I think Ron moved out of step with his district and started representing (Republican Speaker of the House) Tom Craddick instead of Tom Jones in his district,” said state Rep. Garnet Colemen.

Coleman’s comments were a reference to the fact that Wilson was one of the few Democrats to side with Craddick and other Republicans in a redistricting plan designed to give the GOP the majority of Texas congressional seats. It was a sentiment echoed by Wilson’s challenger.

“I think redistricting was the key issue in the race,” Allen said. “We’re very excited and we’re looking forward to new leadership and new ideas in the district.”

Wilson was not available for comment late Tuesday.

Excellent. Good luck finding a job, Ron. You can always take the GOP Career Plan and become a highly-paid lobbyist for business interests.

In other contested Congressional primaries, Rep. Lloyd Doggett won easily over Judge Leticia Hinojosa, while Rep. Ciro Rodriguez appears to have beaten back a strong challenge from Henry Cuellar. On the Doggett race:

With 90 percent of the district’s precincts reporting, Doggett, of Austin, was beating Hinojosa, of McAllen, by 64 percent to 35 percent.

In Austin, Doggett cruised with 88 percent of the vote. But he also nosed ahead in the narrow district’s southern anchor, Hidalgo County, leading by fewer than 100 out of more than 15,000 votes there with 53 of 54 precincts reporting.

Running even in the Valley was the key for Doggett. The Quorum Report, which had noted the high early voting totals in Hidalgo County and which took that as a likely sign of trouble for Doggett, expressed surprise at the result. They also quoted Hinojosa’s campaign as acknowledging her need to get 60% of the vote there, something which she failed to do.

As for Rodriguez, the Secretary of State shows him leading 23,546 to 22,089 with 261 of 269 precincts counted. Given that there’s an average of 170 voters per precinct, and that Cuellar would have to win the remaining 8 precincts by an average of 183 votes per precinct, I think we can call this one for the incumbent.

Other Democratic news: State Sen. Mario Gallegos won his primary against Yolanda Navarro Flores, Richard Morrison won the right to take on Tom DeLay, and oh yeah, John Kerry won easily, too.

On the GOP side, former judge Ted Poe easily won the CD 02 race and will challenge Rep. Nick Lampson in November. In CD 10, the nutball Ben Streusand and the sane-by-comparison Mike McCaul advanced to the runoff, while the same fate awaits Arlene Wohlgemuth and Dot Snyder in CD 17 and Louie Gohmert and John Graves in CD 01. The McCaul/Streusand winner gets a free pass in November, while the Wohlgemuth/Snyder winner will face Rep. Chet Edwards and the Gohmert/Graves winner gets Rep. Max Sandlin. Finally, in statewide races, State Supreme Court judge Steven Wayne Smith got ousted while Railroad Commish Victor Carillo will be in a runoff.

UPDATE: Still not over in CD 28. One more precinct has reported, and it’s now 24,004 to 23,169 for Ciro Rodriguez. That means the 262nd precinct was won by Cuellar by a 1080-458 margin. Obviously, that “average of 170 votes per precinct” methodology has some holes in it. The latest story from the Express News says

Rodriguez, of San Antonio, was leading Laredoan Cuellar by just more than 1,000 votes at 7 this morning. But several thousand votes in Zapata County were still being hand-counted, and officials with the county Sheriff’s Department were unsure when results would be available.

There was no answer this morning at the Zapata County Elections Department.

Both campaigns had staffers anxiously awaiting results in Zapata County, which is adjacent to Webb County in the district’s southern portion.

Rodriguez spokesman John Puder said he was confident that Rodriguez would emerge victorious.

“We only need 30 percent in Zapata,” he said. “We don’t need to take it — it’s just a matter of not getting killed down there.”

Cuellar spokesman Colin Strother said he was equally sure that Cuellar would win Zapata.

“Henry’s mother is from Zapata, he was baptized in Zapata and he has a very strong following there among elected officials and voters,” Strother said.

Stay tuned.