Sunday, September 26, 2004

Rummy Pitches In 

You may have assumed that the important work of suppressing the Democratic vote and concocting new ways to game the ballot count was best left to party hacks like Jeb Bush and Glenda Hood. Au contraire! In the GOP, vote fraud is a team effort; everyone pitches in; and however full his plate may be, there is no job too small for Honest Don Rumsfeld. As the two items below indicate, the pillar of integrity who swore under oath at the Abu Ghraib hearings that "I can't conceive of anyone looking at the pictures and suggesting that anyone could have recommended, condoned, permitted, encouraged, subtly, directly, in any way, that those things take place," has been horning in on Jeb and Glenda's turf:
The U.S. Defense Department changed its explanation Wednesday for problems faced by certain overseas Americans attempting to access the government Web site for voters abroad, saying that an Internet security block imposed several years ago had been left in place inadvertently.

The block, which had prevented some U.S. citizens abroad from accessing www.fvap.gov, the site of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, as the Nov. 2 election nears, has now been lifted, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Tim Madden, spokesman for the Defense Department task force that oversees the Pentagon's computer networks, declined to specify the reason for the block.

Earlier, a Pentagon official indicated that the block had been imposed to thwart hackers, but Madden would not comment on this.

He insisted, however, that the Pentagon had not been not blocking the Federal Voting Assistance Program's site.

Earlier Wednesday, three members of Congress [Reps. Henry Waxman, Carolyn B. Maloney, and William Lacy Clay] wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warning that the block could result in "the potential disenfranchisement of millions of overseas Americans" and urging him to restore access to the site . . . .

Madden declined to say when the block was originally imposed. But Maloney, the Democratic congresswoman, indicated that it may have been in place when the last presidential election took place, in 2000.

"It's my understanding that this was a problem four years ago, they knew it was a problem, and they still haven't managed to fix it so that Americans overseas can access the Web site," she said, before the Pentagon indicated that the block had been lifted.
We note in passing that if, as Mr. Madden insisted, the Pentagon had not been blocking access to the site, it is very odd indeed that a letter to Secretary Rumsfeld would result in the immmediate lifting of the block. We note further that a majority of expatriate Americans (excluding military personnel) tend to vote Democratic.

The second and scarier item has to do with electronic absentee voting for American troops overseas. For the first time in history, the ballots of certain military personnel -- those from Missouri and North Dakota -- will be routed through the Pentagon instead of going directly to their states of residence. This August 31 article from the NYT catalogues the obvious opportunities for fraud and coercion:
The Missouri secretary of state, Matt Blunt, decided last week that military voters in combat zones will be able to e-mail their ballots to the Pentagon, which will then send them to local Missouri elections offices to be counted. This system, which has not been used before, is rife with security problems, including the possibility of hacking the e-mailed ballots, which will not be encrypted. This year the Defense Department scrapped a pilot program to allow the military to vote over the Internet, after concluding that it could not "assure the legitimacy" of online votes.

There is more cause for concern after the ballots arrive at the Pentagon. E-mail voters will be required to sign a release acknowledging that their votes may not be kept secret. When the people handling ballots know who they are cast for, it is not hard to imagine that ballots for disfavored candidates could accidentally be "lost." And because the e-mailed ballots arrive as computer documents, it is possible to cut off the voter's digitized signature, attach it to a ballot supporting another candidate, and send that ballot on to the state to be counted.

It is unclear how good the protections are to guard against tampering. The e-mailed ballots will be handled by a contractor, Omega Technologies, hired for this purpose, at the company's offices and without the election observers who are present at normal polling places.

E-mail voting by military personnel also opens the door to coercion. Many soldiers may have to vote on computers in places where their commanding officers may be present. They may also be reluctant to vote their conscience if they know that the Defense Department could be reading their ballots.

It invites cynicism about American democracy to operate a system in which employees who answer to the secretary of defense could control the margin of victory in a close presidential election.

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