Istvan S. N. Berkeley, Ph.D.
Since election day, there has been a plethora of concerns, conspiracy
theories, criticisms and commentaries on the events of that evening and
night. Many of these issues have been raised on Internet sites, such as
. The site http://www.moveon.org
has even started an Internet based petition that the election should be subject to detailed scrutiny.
Many of the concerns expressed have been nebulous in the extreme,
focusing on all sorts of issues. For instance, the electronic polling
machines have come in for particular criticism. The purpose of this is
to address in specific detail a potential electoral problem that has
not received too much attention, this concerns the tabulating machines.
It will be shown that there are specific potential problems with these
devices. A detailed technical description of these problems will be
provided, along with an illustrated example. It will then be argued
that there is evidence that this is not just a theoretical issue.
1. Voting and Reporting
It is important that the mechanisms actually used in U.S. elections are
understood. Although there are many variations, due to different States
having different legislation, there are certain commonalities to the
structure, especially with respect to the chain of reporting of ballots
cast. Each State is divided into administrative regions. These can be
Counties, Parishes, Wards, or Districts. The important point is that
the ballot totals from each polling place is reported to these
administrative regional headquarters. These headquarters then report
tabulated tallies to a central Statewide location. This reporting
structure is pretty much universal and is entirely independent of the
actual technology used to record the individual voters' choices, be it
punch card, optically scanned ballot, or entirely electronic voting
The reason why it is important that this structure is understood is
that a problem within this structure can effect the outcome of almost
any election. In the current context, the focus will be upon the
so-called 'tabulating machines' that collect the reports from the
individual polling places at the regional headquarters, add them up and
then report to further tabulators at the State level. It turns out that
this tabulating and reporting process is a particular cause of concern.
2. Tabulating and Reporting Systems
A variety of technologies are used in the process of adding up the
votes. In order to make this account as concrete as possible, attention
will be focused on a particular system, GEMS (Global Election
Management System), sold by the Diebold Corporation. GEMS is a suite of
software that runs on an ordinary Windows computer. Votes can be
reported to the system in a variety of ways, ranging from polling
places making dial-up connections to the computer by modem, or by the
system scanning memory cards.
A version of the GEMS software is available on the Internet at http://www.blackboxvoting.org
The discussion here is based upon this version of the software, version
22.214.171.124 (2002), a prerelease version. At the same web site, a real
set of election results is available. These are the results from The
City of Colorado Springs Election, that took place on April 3rd, 2001.
These are the results that will be used for the illustration below.
3. GEMS: Operating System and Physical Security
The Windows operating system is an immediate cause for concern.
Although many of us run it on our home and office computers, regular
concerns about the security of this operating system appear on
technological web sites, such as http://slashdot.org
on a regular basis. Although Microsoft addresses security issues on a
regular basis, a machine is only truly secure if it has been thoroughly
patched and subject to a very detailed security audit. So, the security
of the machine upon which GEMS runs is a function of the zealousness of
the information technology staff of each location where GEMS is
There is a further concern that arises with respect to the physical
security of the GEMS system. Even if the operating system is completely
up to date and maintained to the highest standards, any individual who
has physical access to the machine may potentially access the files on
the machine, including the files used by the GEMS system. This is due
to the many well know ways of defeating Windows password security. For
instance, if the system is booted from certain types of software media,
administrator access to the machine can be gained with ease. Should
this happen, all the flies and software on the machine can be accessed
and potentially tampered with, by a person with malicious intent. It is
perhaps significant that Microsoft do not recommend Windows for
'mission critical' situations. Whilst security issues are obviously
crucial when it comes to crucial infrastructure, such as nuclear power
stations, it is perhaps grounds for concern that it is considered
acceptable for the tabulation of an election.
4. GEMS: Running the System
GEMS launches just like any other Windows program. However, it does
have certain security features built in. Most notably when GEMS
launches, it invites the user to select a particular election database
file. Before the database will open in GEMS though, a password is
required. This screen is illustrated below [sorry about the quality of
the images -- these were the best that could be generated with the
Of course, the security of GEMS is contingent upon the care with which
the password was chosen. In this case, the password was just
'password'. Clearly this is not satisfactory.
Once the password has been successfully entered, it becomes possible to
use GEMS. The user is presented with a range of menus and options, as
can (almost) be seen in the following screen shot.
Along the top is a series of menu options. One of these can be used to
generate reports from the loaded election database. The picture below
illustrates part of an 'Election Summary Report' based upon the
Colorado Springs election results.
Attention should be directed to the bottom of the
picture, where the results for an 'At-Large' race are reported.
According to GEMS, Judy Noyes won this race with 21,587 votes (50.27%).
Her opponent was Tim Pleasant who received 21,359 votes (49.73%). So
far, so good. However, this is also where it is possible to begin to
demonstrate some of the shortcoming of the system.
5. GEMS: Making Changes
With the GEMS software still running, it is also possible to access the
election results by other means. In particular, the database software
upon which GEMS is based, is the common Access database software that
ships with many versions of Microsoft's popular Office suite of
programs. The following picture illustrates the database for the
Colorado Springs election open in Access, whilst it is also open in GEMS!
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this ability
to simultaneously open the database in GEMS and Access is that Access
does not require the user to supply any password at all, to get at the
data contained in the database.
Once Access has opened the GEMS database, simply double clicking on a
database component causes it to be opened. In addition, the file can be
edited. The picture below illustrates the Candidates component of the
Colorado Springs city election. This contains the candidates names and
various other bits of information, including the internal indexing
variable, used by GEMS.
The close up detail of the Candidates component of the Colorado Springs
city election is illustrated below. The indexing variable and the
candidate names are visible.
The important point in the current context is to
note that candidate Tim Pleasant has index number '556' and his
opponent in the At Large race, Judy Noyes has the index number 557.
Here is where is gets scary. It is a trivial matter to just reverse the
index numbers. This is illustrated in the next picture.
It turns out that this simple change has a
dramatic effect upon the apparent outcome of the election. This is
despite the fact that the change could be made without needing a
password in under thirty seconds. Of course, after the change has been
made, it is also necessary to save the new version of the file. Once
the change had been made, GEMS was reexamined, so as to view the effect
that it had (remember GEMS has been running throughout this exercise).
Pulling up the Election Summary report equivalent to the one that was
illustrated at the end of the last section, produces the following
Although the picture isn't as clear as it might
be, it is clear that in this case Tim Pleasant's name is bolded as the
winner of the race. He now appears to have 21,587 votes (50.27%) in
contrast to the 21,359 (49.73%) assigned to Judy Noyes by the altered
GEMS database. What the simple change in the index number has effected is a trading of one candidates votes with the other!
6. GEMS: Audit Logs
Although this result is somewhat shocking, all hope should not be lost.
GEMS maintains an elaborate and detailed audit logs that keep a record
of every activity of the system. This is a sensible and prudent
provision on the behalf of the system's manufacturer. So, it is to be
hoped that such an obviously fraudulent change (at least fraudulent in
the context of a real election) should be recorded in the Audit logs of
the system. The picture below provides an illustration of the kind of
information that appears in the GEMS audit log.
The system, clearly identifies activity in the
system, records which user was responsible and the precise date and
time the activity occurred. In the current context, the last four
entries are of crucial interest. The entry at 18.05 corresponding to
the opening of GEMS for the session illustrated in the pictures above.
The 18.07 entry corresponds to the original displaying of the Election
Summary Report included in section 4, above, prior to changes having
been made to the database. The final entry at 18.14 is the second
version of the same report displayed after the changes had been made.
However, GEMS contains no record that the election database has been tampered with!
This is because the changes were made outside the system and, as such,
could not be logged by the system. (N.B. although it took under 30
seconds to make the changes in Access, taking pictures of the process
is the reason for the apparently longer time indicated here).
This particular result is especially troubling. It shows that even
though the system has a number of safeguards within it to prevent
tampering, these safeguards can easily be circumvented. This problem is
especially troublesome for jurisdictions that use voting technologies
that produce no paper ballot. This is because if such a change was
made, there would be no way to know that it had happened and no method
of verifying the results of the election.
7. Caveats and Discussion
The example illustrated above should certainly provide election
officials who use GEMS with cause for concern. Of course, it is
important to stress that the version of the software is a prerelease
version. It is quite possible that the shortcomings illustrated here
may have been fixed. However, it would at the very least be prudent to
check that this is the case. Probably a better solution would be for
all results that were tabulated using GEMS should be subject to a
statistically meaningful partial hand count, where ever possible. It is
also important to realize that GEMS is not the only tabulating system
used in the election of November 2nd this year. It would also appear
prudent that other systems be checked for similar problems. Until such
after the fact checks have been undertaken, concerns about the validity
of the results will remain.
Denial is a natural reaction to such demonstrations of problems,
especially in the highly politically charged context of the recent
Presidential campaign. One obvious line of defense would be for
election officials to note that the Microsoft Access software was not
installed on their machines that ran GEMS. Such a defense is without
virtue however. This is because it is a simple matter to have Access
installed on a portable storage media, like a so-called 'thumb drive'.
It would be trivial to insert such a drive into a USB port for the
short duration need to make the changes and then remove it, leaving no
obvious trace that it had ever been there.
8. Could this really ever have happened?
Thus far a possibility of a problem has been demonstrated, but nothing
more. Many things are possible, rather fewer are actual. So, in the
current context, it is important to consider whether there is any
evidence that the kind of situation illustrated above might hove
occurred in a real election. Regrettably, the evidence suggests that
something akin to the situation described above may have actually
occurred on more than one occasion. So, yes this really could have
The activist web site http://www.votersunite.org
has a list of problems that have arisen with election technology,
organized by vendor. The document covering Diebold machines at http://www.votersunite.org/info/Dieboldinthenews.pdf
lists the following instances:
- In August 2002, an election in Clay County, Kansas had a
problem. Initially it appeared that one candidate had won easily,
however a recount reversed the result. Moreover in one ward, it was
clear that the candidates totals had been reversed.
- In October 2003, during the California recall election, poll
workers in Alamedia County noticed a sudden surge in votes from
absentee ballots for the fringe candidate John Burton. An investigation
revealed that votes cast for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante were mysteriously
being awarded to Burton.
- In the same election, Tulare County reported apparent voting
trends which favored surprising candidates, whilst the major candidates
received a very small proportion of the votes cast. In several counties
that used the Diebold machines, candidate Jerry Kunzman received
surprisingly high vote totals. Researchers from New York University
hypothesized that these surprising trends were best explained by the
shifting of votes between candidates.
- In March 2004, in the presidential primary race in San Diego
County, California 2,747 votes cast for U.S. Sen. John Kerry were
switched to U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt.
The fact that these errors were discovered by election officials is
good news and provides some assurances with respect to the electoral
process. However, one is left wondering whether there were other
incidents that were missed. These concerns are necessarily heightened
in jurisdictions that no longer have a paper trail of paper ballots.
There are however further grounds for concern, especially with respect
to the recent Presidential election of November 2004. These concerns
focus upon the various discrepancies that have been reported between
the results from exit polls and final vote tallies. Steven F. Freeman,
Ph.D for the University of Pennsylvania has provided an analysis of
these alleged discrepancies that is available at http://truthout.org/unexplainedexitpoll.pdf
According to Freeman, exit polls usually have a very low margin of
error. He cites claims that discrepancies between exit polls and final
election results are usually in the region of 0.2%. In the recent
Presidential election, Freeman's analysis suggest that discrepancies
were much larger than this. After offering the details of his
methodology he concludes that there were significant and troubling
discrepancies in the States of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania such that
the odds against these discrepancies occurring in three States were on
the order of 250 million to one, against. The case of Ohio is
especially troubling in the context of the illustration offered
above. Freeman's data indicates that exit polls suggested that Bush
would receive 47.9% of the vote and Kerry would receive 52.1%. The
final results though showed that, according to the official totals,
Bush was actually assigned 51.0% of the vote, as compared to Kerry's
48.5%. Analogous reversals can also be seen in the case of Nevada and
New Mexico, in addition. These reversals are especially troublesome, as
they are the kind of thing that one might expect to see if techniques
similar to the one above were employed at some of the locations where
GEMS was used.
Various responses to this exit poll data have been offered. Freeman
discusses with most of these and finds the explanations offered
unsatisfactory. Perhaps the most salient issue in this context is that
the exit polls were never intended to be used as a means of verifying
the integrity of the election. However, intent is not always a useful
way of assessing situations. After all, the drug Viagra was originally
investigated as a heart medication! The evidence offered here makes it
reasonable that these discrepancies should at the very least be
examined much more carefully.
The information presented here obviously raises the question of whether
it is possible that the recent Presidential election was rigged.
Regrettably, the information does not provide a clear answer on this
question. It is clear that using the techniques illustrated, the
have been subject to tampering. For this reason
then, it seems that there are compelling reasons that what evidence
that remains should be subject to detailed scrutiny. More importantly
though it also suggests that steps should be taken to ensure this
situation never arises again.
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