Bev Harris, an activist who runs a Web site called Black Box Voting, and a handful of computer scientists staged an event here--complete with a video showing a computer-savvy chimpanzee throwing an election--to highlight how the security used by Diebold Election Systems could be circumvented. Diebold's software will count tens of millions of votes this fall.
The reported vulnerabilities occur in Diebold's Global Election Management System (GEMS), which is Microsoft Windows software that tabulates votes reported by election precincts. GEMS stores precinct totals in a standard database format that can be altered without a password simply by opening the files in Microsoft Access.
"This is something that any county IT guy can do," Harris told a room filled with about 40 reporters. In addition, Herbert Thompson, director of security research at Security Innovation, demonstrated a tiny Visual Basic script that could alter GEMS totals.
A Diebold spokesman dismissed the demonstration as "analogous to a magic show."
Diebold's David Bear said there were standard checks and balances that would prevent this method from affecting official election results. "The premise is based on something that doesn't happen, which is complete and unfettered access to an elections system," Bear said. "In the real world, it does not happen...The scenario they threw out wouldn't have any effect on an election, because it affects only the unofficial vote total, not the official vote total."
Still, Harris and her allies--including Joan Krawitz from the National Ballot Integrity Project and a programmer who demonstrated attacks on Sequoia Voting Systems software--are hoping that their criticism of election machines will generate interest in last-minute alternatives that provide some kind of paper trail. Only 41 days are left until the November election.
Among the "emergency measures" that Krawitz proposed on Wednesday: Cast all votes for federal office on paper ballots, including optical-scan and punch-card ballots; count all those ballots by hand in public; and tabulate precinct results with calculators or spreadsheets instead of relying on GEMS.
Also on Wednesday, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation released a kind of election guide for geeks. Complete with photographs of the most popular models of e-voting machines, it lists their known flaws and problems that people have had with them in the past.
"The more people know about the voting machines they'll be using, the better prepared they'll be on election day." EFF staff attorney Matt Zimmerman said in a statement.