This November 2003 article was available for
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provide a copy of the article below for free. Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell's quote committing Ohio to Bush is the second sentence in the article.
Politics In the Digital Age
By MELANIE WARNER (NYT) 2144 words
Published: November 9, 2003
IN mid-August, Walden W. O'Dell, the chief executive of Diebold Inc., sat
down at his computer to compose a letter inviting 100 wealthy and politically
inclined friends to a Republican Party fund-raiser, to be held at his home
in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its
electoral votes to the president next year,'' wrote Mr. O'Dell, whose
company is based in Canton, Ohio.
That is hardly unusual for Mr. O'Dell. A
longtime Republican, he is a member of President Bush's ''Rangers and
Pioneers,'' an elite group of loyalists who have raised at least $100,000
each for the 2004 race.
But it is not the only way that Mr. O'Dell is
involved in the election process. Through Diebold Election Systems, a
subsidiary in McKinney, Tex., his company is among the country's biggest
suppliers of paperless, touch-screen voting machines.
Judging from Federal Election Commission
data, at least eight million people will cast their ballots using Diebold
machines next November. That is 8 percent of the number of people who voted
in 2000, and includes all voters in the states of Georgia and Maryland and
those in various counties of California, Virginia, Texas, Indiana, Arizona
Some people find Mr. O'Dell's pairing of
interests -- as voting-machine magnate and devoted Republican fund-raiser
-- troubling. To skeptics, including more than a few Democrats, it raises
at least the appearance of an ethical problem. Some of the chatter on the
Internet goes so far as to suggest that he could use his own machines to
sway the election.
Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey,
does not buy such conspiracy theories, but he said he was appalled at the
''It's outrageous,'' he said. ''Not only does
Mr. O'Dell want the contract to provide every voting machine in the nation
for the next election -- he wants to 'deliver' the election to Mr. Bush.
There are enough conflicts in this story to fill an ethics manual.''
Mr. O'Dell declined to be interviewed for
this article, but a company official said that his political affiliations
had nothing to do with Diebold's operations, and that the company derived
the bulk of its revenue from A.T.M.'s, not voting machines. ''This is not
Diebold; this is Wally O'Dell personally,'' said Thomas W. Swidarski,
senior vice president for strategic development and global marketing at
Diebold, who works closely with Mr. O'Dell. ''The issue has been
BUT the controversy surrounding Diebold goes
beyond its chief executive's political activities. In July, professors at
Johns Hopkins University and Rice University analyzed the software code for
the company's touch-screen voting machines and concluded that there was
''no evidence of rigorous software engineering discipline'' and that
''cryptography, when used at all, is used incorrectly.''
Making matters worse, the software code for
the machines was discovered in January by a Seattle-area writer on a publicly
accessible Internet site. That the code was unprotected constitutes a
significant security lapse by Diebold, said Aviel D. Rubin, an associate
professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, co-author of the study of
Mr. Swidarski said the code on the Internet
site was outdated and was not now in use in machines.
About 15,000 internal Diebold e-mail messages
also found their way to the Internet. Some referred to software patches
installed on Diebold machines days before elections. Others indicated that
the Microsoft Access database used in Diebold's tabulation servers was not
protected by passwords. Diebold, which says passwords are now installed on
machines, is threatening legal action against anyone who posts the files or
links to them, contending that the e-mail is copyrighted.
A recent report for the state of Maryland by
SAIC, an engineering and research firm, has added to concerns about the
security of Diebold's systems. It recommended 17 steps that Maryland
election officials could take to ensure better security when using
The company seized upon this as evidence that
its systems, if used properly, were secure. But the report's overall
assessment was not particularly upbeat. ''The system, as implemented in
policy, procedure and technology, is at high risk of compromise,'' SAIC
It has been a bumpy couple of months for Mr.
O'Dell, 58, who is known as Wally and spent 33 years at Emerson Electric
before joining what is now Diebold Election Systems. Associates say he was
stunned by the reaction to his August letter and now regrets writing it.
''Wally's going to take a lower profile on
this stuff,'' Mr. Swidarski said. But Mr. Swidarski did not indicate that
Mr. O'Dell would put a halt to all of his political activities. Those have
included attendance at a Bush fund-raiser in Cincinnati on Sept. 30 and a
flight to Crawford, Tex., in August for a Pioneers and Rangers meeting
attended by the president.
Other Diebold executives have contributed to
President Bush's re-election campaign. According to data reported to the
Federal Election Commission, 11 executives have added a total of $22,000 to
the president's campaign coffers this year. No money from Diebold or its
executives has gone to Democratic presidential candidates this year.
The controversy over security has started to
affect Diebold's business. Last week, the office of the California
secretary of state halted certification of Diebold's latest touch-screen
voting machines, which individual counties are considering using. In
Wisconsin, security concerns have soured election officials' perceptions of
computerized voting. ''We were already not strongly in favor of it, but the
whole problem has changed when you're getting e-mails every week saying,
'You're not going to do this, right?''' said Kevin J. Kennedy, director of
Wisconsin's election board.
Matt Summerville, an analyst at McDonald
Investments in Cleveland, said the California decision could cause Diebold
to book less revenue in its voting division this year than it had hoped.
''It has certainly made their business a little more challenging,'' said
Mr. Summerville, who expects the voting division to contribute $113 million
this year to Diebold's total revenue of $2.1 billion.
So far, investors have not seemed concerned.
Diebold's stock is up almost 36 percent for the year.
Until recently, Diebold's voting business
looked extremely promising. Florida's electoral fiasco in 2000 confirmed
what many state and county election officials had known for years: that
punch-card systems were outdated. Encouraged by a new federal law that set
aside $3.9 billion for voting improvements, many states and counties are
moving rapidly to computer-based systems.
Analysts say the biggest beneficiaries of the
federal dollars are likely to be Diebold, Election Systems & Software
in Omaha and Sequoia Voting Systems, based in Oakland, Calif. So far,
Washington has provided $650 million to states to buy new voting machines
and improve the election process, though most of that has yet to be spent.
An additional $830 million is waiting to be disbursed as soon as a new
national oversight committee for elections is established.
NOT everyone is convinced that spending
hundreds of millions of dollars to computerize the nation's voting is a
good thing. The Johns Hopkins and SAIC reports are part of a growing chorus
of criticism about the reliability and safety of paperless voting systems.
''There's a feeling in the computer scientist
community of utter dismay about the state of voting-machine technology,''
said Douglas W. Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the
University of Iowa and a member of Iowa's board of examiners for voting
David L. Dill, a computer science professor
at Stanford, said: ''If I was a programmer at one of these companies and I
wanted to steal an election, it would be very easy. I could put something
in the software that would be impossible for people to detect, and it would
change the votes from one party to another. And you could do it so it's not
going to show up statistically as an anomaly.''
Diebold says there are enough checks and
balances in the system to catch this. ''Programmers do not set up the
elections; election officials do,'' Mr. Swidarski said. ''All a programmer
knows are numbers, which are not assigned to real people and parties until
But Professor Dill says the inherent
complexity of software code makes it nearly impossible to ensure that
computerized elections are fair. He advocates that machines be required to
print out a paper ballot, which voters can use to verify their selections
and which will serve as an audit trail in the event of irregularities or
Touch-screen machines from Diebold, called
AccuVotes, do not have such a ''voter verified'' paper trail. ES&S and
Sequoia are working on prototypes for machines with printers. Diebold's
machines are like A.T.M.'s, in that voters touch their selection and hit
''enter'' to record their votes onto memory cards inside each terminal.
After voting has ended, the memory cards are inserted into a Diebold server
at each precinct. The results are tabulated and sent by modem, or the data
disks are sent to a central office.
Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist and
president of the consulting firm Notable Software, who has been studying
election systems for 14 years, says the trouble with this system is that it
is secretive. It prohibits anyone from knowing whether the data coming out
of the terminals represents what voters actually selected. If someone were to
challenge election results, the data in memory cards and the software
running the voting terminals could be examined only by Diebold
MS. MERCURI ran up against this last year,
when she served as a consultant in a contested city council election in
Boca Raton, Fla. Her request to look at the software inside the city's
machines, made by Sequoia, to see if there were any bugs or malfunctions,
was denied by a judge on the grounds that the technology was protected by
trade-secret clauses. Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold routinely include such
clauses in their contracts.
''These companies are basically saying 'trust
us,''' Ms. Mercuri said. ''Why should anybody trust them? That's not the
way democracy is supposed to work.''
Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New
Jersey, is leading an effort to make computerized voting more transparent.
His bill, introduced this year, would require that computerized voting
systems produce a voter-verified paper ballot and that the software code be
The bill, in the House Administration
Committee, has 60 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
''Someone said to me the other day, 'We've
had these electronic voting machines for several years now and we've never
had a problem.' And I said, 'How do you know?' and he couldn't answer
that,'' Representative Holt said. ''The job of verification shouldn't
belong to the company; it should belong to the voter.''
Diebold said it would be willing to attach
ballot printers to touch-screen machines if customers wanted them. But Mr.
Swidarski said elections boards were not clamoring for it. ''We're agnostic
to it,'' he said.
Mr. Swidarski disputed the assertion that
Diebold's systems are vulnerable to tampering. Before each election, he
said, the software goes through rigorous testing and certification by one
of three companies contracted through the National Association of State
Election Directors. Those companies ''go through every line of code,'' he
said. ''It's an extensive process that takes several months, and then the
machines go for testing at the state level.''
Critics say that the certification process is
not as thorough as the companies would have people believe, and that the
resulting reports, like the technology, are not available for public
inspection. This opacity is what worries detractors most.
''We know from Enron and WorldCom that when
accounting is weak, crooks have been known to take over,'' Professor Jones
said. ''If vulnerabilities exist in any voting system for a long enough
time, someone's going to exploit it.''
Correction: November 16, 2003, Sunday
An article last Sunday about Diebold Inc., which supplies touch-screen
voting machines through a subsidiary, referred imprecisely to the way
Walden W. O'Dell, Diebold's president and chief executive, joined the
company in 1999. He was hired with those titles at Diebold Inc., not the
subsidiary, Diebold Election Systems; the subsidiary was created after
Diebold Inc. acquired Global Election Systems in 2002.
Photos: David L. Dill, a computer scientist
at Stanford University, argues that it is nearly impossible to ensure that
computerized elections are fair. (Photo by Thor Swift for The New York
Times); As chief executive of Diebold, Walden W. O'Dell is both a
voting-machine magnate and a big Republican contributor. (PRN)(pg. 11); Are
touch-screen voting machines, like Diebold's, secure? Computer scientists
are worried. (pg. 1)
Chart: ''A.T.M.'s and More''
Diebold, which makes automated teller machines and security systems -- and
the software that runs them -- also makes touch-screen voting machines.