Brad Blog: Reliability of U-T 'news article' questioned!
Also: State Senator Barbara Bowen 'plans to hold public hearings on possible voting irregularities'
By Winter Patriot on 7/20/2006, 2:08am PT  

Guest blogged by Winter Patriot

Staff Writer Leslie Wolf Branscomb of the San Diego Union-Tribune actually gets some of the story right in her July 19th piece: Reliability of voting machines questioned.

Brad mentioned this story yesterday, noting that it was among "the worst" of the most recent local coverage of the Busby/Bilbray election, which, as all regular readers know, happened over a month ago and is still under a cloud of doubt.

Just before he left for his "vacation", Brad mentioned that "the reporters continue to allow Haas to pass on his knowing obfuscations, and the media is usually too lazy or ill-informed to bother to call him on it. So that's your job now!" and he also said: "Please help such media out by giving them the facts to counter Haas' ass-covering spin, misleads, red-herrings and bald-faced lies."

And so, without further ado ... after the fold you will find extended excerpts and some commentary from your lowly and nearly frozen guest-blogger.

And please also read Brad's post on the subject, if you haven't done so already.

It could have been a good one. San Diego Union Tribune Staff Writer Leslie Wolf Branscomb starts with a bang:

The security and reliability of the county's electronic voting system was questioned yesterday by protesters, who are calling for county hearings into possible voting irregularities.

Hurrah! A lead paragraph containing facts and only facts! Maybe we're getting somewhere!

But then again, maybe not. Branscomb goes on to repeat the false and misleading claims of various elections officials, apparently without fact-checking anything they said. How thoroughly unsurprising.

The majority of county supervisors said yesterday that hearings are unnecessary because the voting machines have been certified by the California secretary of state.

Certified? Oh yes indeed! The machines had been certified, and they would have remained certified if the proper security procedures had been followed. But allowing poll workers unsupervised access to the machines --- the so-called "sleepovers" --- should have invalidated their certifications, and would have, if the rule of law mattered in this election. Apparently it didn't. Apparently it still doesn't. Not yet, anyway. At this point it appears that the only thing that matters anymore is who can tell the most plausible lies.

Does Branscomb explore any of this? Are you kidding? Instead she shifts topics:

Some dismissed the protest as election-year grandstanding.

Ahh, that's a great racket, isn't it. During even-numbered years, all questions about election integrity can be dismissed as "election-year grandstanding", and during odd-numbered years such complaints can be dismissed as "sour grapes", so the big topic --- the real topic --- the subject of whether or not our elections are what they appear to be --- never needs to be discussed at all! It's so simple, isn't it! The elegance of this arrangement would be beautiful, were it not so evil.

To her credit, Branscomb does get around to quoting some of the people who had gathered to question the reliabilty of those pesky voting machines. For instance:

Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, yesterday called on the supervisors to air the issue publicly.

Fat chance, Jesse! They'll do it from prison if they do it at all.

Practices such as allowing poll workers to take the voting machines home have been widely criticized, Durfee said. “The growing crisis of confidence will continue to undermine the election process,” he said. “We risk everything if we risk the integrity of our electoral system.”

So Jess Durfee seems to understand how important electoral integrity is. Good for him.

Durfee and others spoke to the supervisors at their regularly scheduled board meeting. However, the issue wasn't discussed by supervisors because it wasn't on the agenda.

Imagine that! Just what do you have to do to get something like this on the agenda? Pray tell! They have more important things to talk about?

Later, however, board chairman Bill Horn and Supervisor Dianne Jacob said questions about the voting machines are for state, not county, officials.

Ah, I get it. This buck stops nowhere.

“Nobody said that there was local fraud,” Horn added. “Until I get a firm accusation of something illegal taking place, I don't have a reason to have a public hearing.”

If you haven't seen a firm accusation of something illegal taking place, you should be reading The BRAD BLOG, Mr. Horn.

Can 6 or 7 people please get in touch with Mr. Bill Horn? It shouldn't be too hard; he's the "board chairman". Somebody needs to tell Mr. Horn that a firm accuastion has been published. Many times. Right here.

Or better yet, can 6 or 7 people please call the cops?

Regarding precinct workers taking home the machines, Horn added: “The poll workers are not felons. They're volunteers, and we need every one we can get.”

Aha! Here's the old canard about poll workers. Listen, Mr. Bill Horn: Just because a poll worker is not a convicted felon doesn't mean you can ignore state and federal regulations and send each one of them home with one of the most hackable computers ever made --- to stay with them for days or weeks! It doesn't matter if they're not felons! It doesn't even matter if they're all candy-stripers! They'll store the machines in their cars and garages, and someone just might break in ... and tamper with one of them.

So what? you say. What damage could somebody do? Listen: It only takes two minutes for somebody to change the election software, the operating system software, and even the firmware on one of these computers.

Maybe your eyes just glazed over. Maybe you don't understand terms like "operating system" and "firmware".

That's ok. I'll rephrase it:

It would be possible for somebody to change every single aspect of a machine's behavior, all in two minutes.

He wouldn't even need a password. All he would need is physical access to the machine.

And the computers talk to each other, so it only takes one contaminated machine to contaminate them all.

Therefore, it would only take one person, tampering with one machine for two minutes, to turn an entire election.

Did you get that? A lot of people don't seem to get that. A lot of people who should know better --- much better --- do not seem to get that at all. So forgive me if I repeat myself. I'm looking for language that cannot possibly be misunderstood.

One person --- with the right tools and the right skills and a bit of inside knowledge --- could steal an entire election, without leaving a trace, and all he would need would be two minutes of unsupervised access to one of the machines. He wouldn't even need a password.

So the bit about the poll workers not being felons is a dog that don't hunt. Unless all the poll workers drive Brinks trucks.

Horn and Jacob said they suspected yesterday's rally was driven by election-year politics.

Yes, we heard this before. What is is supposed to mean, do you think? This is about politics --- it's about an election, after all! And by definition an election happens in an election-year. So what is your point, Mr. Horn? And you, Ms. Jacob? What are you really trying to say here? Are you saying that the people who want to see fair and free elections are only doing it for political reasons? Well of course they are! Why the hell would anyone care about an election if not for political reasons?

This nonsensical non-denial should have been a tipoff to our intrepid staff writer that something was amiss. But no.

Personally, I would have omitted any mention of this claim, on the grounds that it was specious, or else I would have mentioned it and then pointed out how specious it was. But no.

It's unfortunate. And maybe it's not Leslie Wolf Branscomb's fault. Maybe she wrote something better and the truth got edited out of it. I'm not saying that's what happened here, but it wouldn't be the first time. Nor the last.

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate. And so are some other passages from the same article:

Others questioned the integrity of the vote count in the 50th Congressional District, where Republican Brian Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby despite her apparent lead in pre-election polls.

What's wrong with that sentence?

Why do we need the word "apparent"? Is Branscomb saying Busby's lead in the polls was more "apparent" than "real"?

Busby's lead in the polls was real, was it not? So we don't need the word "apparent". Perhaps I can say:

Republican Brian Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby despite her lead in pre-election polls.

But wait! That's not right either. We do need the word "apparent" after all. It's just in the wrong place!

Bilbray's "victory" was "apparent".

And that's why there were so many people questioning the reliability of the voting machines!

Do you get it now?

Do you get it, Leslie?

Others questioned the integrity of the vote count in the 50th Congressional District, where Republican Brian Bilbray apparently beat Democrat Francine Busby despite her lead in pre-election polls.

At least not all the news is sad:

State Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, also announced yesterday that she plans to hold public hearings into possible voting irregularities, on behalf of the newly formed Senate Select Committee on the Integrity of Elections. Bowen is a candidate for secretary of state, the office which oversees elections.

Guardedly optimistic cheers for this one!

Durfee said [...] “The law requires that (the machines) be in a secure location, sealed and not at any point be out of the custody of an election official,” Durfee said. “If this practice continues, we can't be sure” that tampering hasn't occurred, he said.

He wouldn't say it, but I will: If this practice continues, we can be sure that tampering will occur.

Later on, Branscomb makes yet another faux-pas:

Rumors and reports have circulated on the Internet for months that the Diebold machines are vulnerable to hacking.

Ummmm ... the FACT that Diebold machines are vulnerable to hacking has been openly discussed on the Internet for YEARS.

“They have been deemed secure to be used in elections in California, if you use them the right way,” San Diego County Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas said yesterday.

But what if you don't? What if you send them home on overnight dates with poll-workers, in direct violation of state and federal security procedures? What then, Mr. Hass?

Precinct bosses have been allowed to take voting equipment home before elections for decades to ensure that everything gets to the polling place early on election day, he said.

Ahh, but that was then; this is now! There's a reason why these sleepovers were illegal, and Haas continues to ignore it. Will somebody please hold this man's feet to the fire? Just once? Please?

“It's the most effective and efficient way to distribute poll materials,” Haas said.

And it's so insecure that it's illegal! But of course he wouldn't say that!!

Each machine is tested before voting starts to ensure that no votes have yet been entered, Haas said.

In other words they don't test the vote-counting software and all the operating system code that it depends on.

Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, nobody in this case has ever accused anyone of recording votes before the election began. So Haas is again slaying a straw man. It's too bad he won't deal with the real issues, but I suppose it's understandable. If what happened in San Diego last month ever became public knowledge ...

... Mikel Haas and Bill Horn and their friends wouldn't want to think about that, would they?