As we Sit Down for a One-on-One Debriefing with the Finnish Computer Security Expert and Discuss American Elections, Rush Holt's Reform Bill, Debra Bowen, 'Black Hats' and Why Elections Matter
Big Turnout and Good Press Coverage Accompany his Riverside Visit, Even if Jeff '1000 to 1' Stone Was a No Show...
By Brad Friedman on 4/1/2007, 7:13pm PT  

Harri Hursti drove up to Los Angeles last Friday after his appearance that morning before the Riverside County, California, "Blue Ribbon" panel convened to investigate massive problems during the County's 2006 election, and continuing concerns from Election Integrity advocates about both the performance and security issues surrounding the Sequoia Edge II DRE touch-screen voting systems in use down there.

We sat down to interview Hursti for a documentary film for an hour or two on Friday night, and we continued chatting into the wee hours. After getting home around 4am, we suspect we'll be playing catching up for a few days.

The headline from those discussions last night is probably that Hursti, now famous for his hack of a paper-based Diebold optical-scan voting system in Leon County, Florida, in late 2005 (as seen live in HBO's documentary Hacking Democracy), advocates digital optically-scanned paper ballots --- where the image of the scan can then be made available to all on the Internet --- as the most secure and most transparent method of voting for the type of elections we have in these United States.

That may come as a surprise to advocates of Rep. Rush Holt's Election Reform bill, who have been pointing to the "Hursti Hack" as a way to suggest that op-scan tabulation is "just as bad" as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) touch-screen voting systems. Holt's bill (HR811) would allow for the continued use of DREs, despite the continuing warnings from computer scientists, disabilities and minority rights advocates, and the Election Integrity community that the devices should be banned.

Hursti heartily disagrees with those Holt supporters and told us again that DREs are not safe for use in elections, with or without a so-called "voter verified paper audit trail." He's asked for us to help facilitate a meeting for him with Holt and his staff to discuss the matter, and we are attempting to do just that.

As well, Hursti's position may also come as a surprise to those who have pointed to the "Hursti Hack" in their call for 100% hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB) in American elections. While Hursti said he recognizes that such a system works well enough in other countries where ballots are much simpler, he feels the thousands of ballot styles and pages and pages of candidates and propositions would likely make all HCPB unwieldy here. By contrast, he explained that in Finland, voters go to the poll and cast a single vote for President as the only race on the ballot, which is simple enough to hand count on the night of the election.

He rattled off the many different systems of democracy in many different countries, from Europe to Asia, as well as a history of how America has come to its current mess, going back as early as the late 1800's to discuss the evolution of our modern day system in this country. Clearly, he's done his homework and is well worth listening to on these matters.

Hursti also gave high marks to California's new Secretary of State Debra Bowen for her recent announcement of "red team" hack testing for all of the state's currently certified electronic voting systems, as part of her "top to bottom review" of those systems. Other computer scientists and security experts have lined up to join in praising Bowen for this unique, first-of-its-kind attempt to finally test the security of these systems.

On the other hand, many of the state's elections officials have come out against such testing of their precious, hackable, un-transparent voting systems. And, surprise surprise, so has the Santa Cruz Sentinel --- the paper once owned by thankfully-former CA SoS Bruce McPherson --- in a laughable editorial late last week claiming that "paper ballots carry an even greater risk" than electronic voting systems, and that Bowen's planned test criteria is a "solution in search of a problem."

We're not sure what cave the Santa Cruz Sentinel has been living in, but we're guessing they've been sharing their hard tack and canned spam with their buddy, the gone-but-apparently-not-forgotten McPherson, the one responsible for certifying these god-awful systems in the first place for the state, despite mountains of evidence suggesting it was unwise. We're also guessing they've never sat down to chat with Harri Hursti.

Hursti's visit to Riverside, as we reported here last week, was in response to County Supervisor Jeff Stone's challenge last December that nobody could manipulate the county's Sequoia election system. After Hursti volunteered to take Stone up on that "1000 to 1" challenge, the county has been waffling ever since. So quite a few members of both the public and the press were on hand yesterday for Hursti's testimony before the "Blue Ribbon" panel.

Although Hursti traveled all the way from Finland, Stone and every other member of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors were apparently too busy to make it up the road to meet Hursti and listen to his presentation...

Tom Courbat, of Riverside's SAVE-R-VOTE coalition, had emailed invitation notices to all of the Riverside County Supes, but none showed up. He had even called Stone's office personally to make sure he was informed of the appearance, but was told that Stone was "booked solid all day long" and so likely would be unable to make it. He didn't.

Hursti told me there were about ten members from the media there, including a local ABC camera crew. Not bad. The Desert-Sun reported "More than 50 people turned out for the hearing in Palm Desert, the best attended of" the three open hearings held by the panel.

(See our "Riverside Challenge" special coverage page for key articles on the whole affair as it's played out over the last several months.)

Courbat was ecstatic yesterday after the event, when he said via email that the commission seemed very impressed with Hursti. "Harri totally blew them away," he wrote, adding that he felt the panel fell in love with Hursti. "We may see some pretty significant change recommendations from the 'Blue Ribbon' committee to the Board of Supervisors."

Given our personal impressions after hangin' with Harri last night, we can appreciate Courbat's optimism and conclusion. Hursti is an immediately likable guy with an enormous amount of charisma, energy, and smarts. Not to mention a hearty sense of humor.

Courbat tells us he's working on getting his video-tape of Hursti's presentation online (though there seem to be some technical probs to work through). The presentation in Riverside, with Q&A, went a full hour or so, though only a half hour was originally expected.

Here are links to just some of the better media coverage on Saturday, regarding Hursti's appearance...

  • Chris Bagley in the North County Times: "Ninety-five percent of frauds are inside jobs...It's the enemy inside." Bagley quotes Hursti as telling the panel. He also points to some unspecified "Los Angeles-based blogger" who apparently helped arrange the Hursti appearance. Hmmm...
  • Kimberly Trone in the Press-Enterprise: Her report also includes a short video interview with Hursti, and some snippets from his testimony.
  • Nicole C. Brambila in The Desert Sun: Her article is headlined "Hacker gives voters something to worry about: Finnish scientist testifies how easy it is to hack system."

Both the Desert Sun and the NC Times articles quoted a snippet from the testimony of Riverside Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore, who has been showing up --- and if the quote and other reports are any indication, making something of a fool of herself --- at all three of the "Blue Ribbon" panel's public hearings in order to defend herself and her use of the Sequoia voting system.

She's quoted in both papers as saying, "I think it speaks volumes to our current system that Save R Vote had to get the best and brightest from another country in order to attempt to hack into our machine."

I'd counter that it "speaks volumes" to the national security threat posed by using such systems in the first place --- as has been previously warned by many scientists and repeated again last night by Hursti --- that "the best and brightest" from other countries recognize how vulnerable our systems are to tampering. Unlike the apparently clueless Dunmore and Stone, folks from overseas understand the threats and the vulnerabilities inherent in our current system.

On Dunmore's comments, Courbat told us, "We're not sure what point she was trying to make, but would she have preferred we brought in a high school student to state how easy it is to hack into the system?"

As Hursti said many times, he "thinks like a black hat," referring to the slang computer security experts use to refer to "bad guys" who might want to disrupt such a supposedly "secure" computer system. Although it apparently hasn't occurred to either Dunmore or Stone, Hursti tells a story which underscores the thinking of many Elections Officials who don't seem to understand that there are, quite literally, trillions of reasons to be concerned about other, not-so-friendly, "black hats" out there.

Late in our discussions last night, Hursti told the story of a conversation he'd had with an election official not long ago in "a swing state" (he refused to reveal the specific name and location of the official, despite unrelenting prodding). The election official, Hursti said, just couldn't understand what the all the fuss was about concerning the security of these election systems. As the official told an astonished Hursti, "We're not counting real things here like money."

In related news... George W. Bush repeated his promise on Saturday to veto a $124 billion emergency spending bill for the Iraq War because it sets benchmarks for a U.S. withdraw by late 2008, and more than 2000 Americans have been killed in Iraq since the 2004 Presidential Election, according to the Dept. of Defense.