New machines lead to new forms of election distrust

But the annals of election fraud are full of allegations about Democrats, too, from the days of dead people voting in Chicago to the Tammany Hall era in New York City and more.

So there’s a lesson for Republicans in today’s conspiracy theories: If the charges of tampering with computerized voting machines have even an iota of truth to them, any alleged GOP chicanery will surely soon be matched by Democrats.

Which leads us to this year’s elections in California. There was only one race in the state’s primary election that had true national significance: The run to replace disgraced and ousted Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in the 50th Congressional District.

In this strongly Republican area, former Rep. Brian Bilbray narrowly defeated Democrat Francine Busby, and conspiracy theorists on the Democratic side have been outraged ever since.

Their chief complaint: San Diego County voting registrar Mikel Haas sent large numbers of voting machines home with precinct election workers for days - even as much as one week - before the election. The machines, made by Diebold Election Systems, have proven vulnerable to corruption in independent tests and were certified for use in California only under stringent rules designed to counter potential problems.

One of those rules governs chain of custody. Careful records must be kept of who carries which machine where and when. No one who hasn’t sworn an oath to uphold electoral integrity can take one home. Another rule requires tamper-evident seals be placed over memory card slots in the machines after cards are cleared of past information and set up for a new election.

But that still doesn’t guarantee integrity, say the critics. They maintain some San Diego County election workers kept machines in garages and broom closets prior to the primary and that no one can therefore be sure who might have gained access to some of them. And they contend there is no such thing as a tamper-evident seal that can’t be removed and later replaced by a skilled expert.

But even if this happened, two election officials must still be present at pre-vote testing of each machine, according to Susan Lapsley, California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson’s assistant in charge of elections. “We just don’t think tampering is possible.”

Others disagree. The Black Box Voting organization, a chief critic of many electronic voting machines, the other day noted that “Because of the design of the Diebold TSx machine - of which thousands were used in the June California primary - a malicious bootloader can be installed at any time. Once a bootloader is contaminated, it can control the machine permanently.” A bootloader is a device that loads software into a computer for use by its operating system.

In short, the critics claim machines can be programmed to falsify votes, even to the extent of spewing “paper trails” that say one thing while a machine records completely different electronic results. Voters, they note, can review paper trails to make sure they match intended votes, but still can’t read the electronic innards of a computer.

The defense McPherson has set up against this possibility is a hand count of one percent of all precincts in the state, with paper trails counted at randomly selected precincts. Some statisticians say that’s a large enough sample to ensure honesty; others maintain it’s only one-tenth the sampling needed to be sure the overall count is not doctored.

It’s a dispute sure to rage on for years, as counties become more and more dependent on electronic voting machines.

So far, only Democrats are complaining, because Republicans have won every close election where the disputed machines were used. But the moment a Democrat triumphs in an important, narrow contest, count on Republicans to bleat even louder.

Which is why Black Box Voting has a point when it suggests that “In a sane world, these machines would be recalled.”

Can’t do that,because a return to purely paper ballots and hand counting would mean election gridlock.

And yet, returning to a system almost everyone trusts might just be worth all the trouble, even if it meant results were delayed a day or two, so long as it restored the basic trust so essential to American democracy.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at