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Conspiracy Theorists Inflame E-Voting Debate

Thursday, September 23, 2004; 2:25 PM

Mainstream critics of e-voting technology have largely focused on what they say are flaws in the security underpinning the touchscreen voting machines and the need for paper receipts recording every vote. But where some technology experts see fixable design flaws, others see sinister conspiracy and are promoting their views aggressively online.

One view touted by a number of activists is that the major voting machine manufacturers, particularly Diebold Election Systems, are in cahoots with the Republican Party to fix elections. The "proof" cited by these theorists is campaign contributions by executives at several voting technology companies to various GOP causes. Another is an interview that electronic voting activist Bev Harris conducted with an engineer who was a contractor in Diebold's Georgia warehouse. Harris says that the engineer, Rob Behler, told her that the company's voting machines worked poorly, and that Diebold had the contractors install at least three patches on the machines before the state's 2002 election.

The problem, the theorists say, is that voting machines, once federally certified, cannot be altered. If that happens, they need to be certified again. In the Georgia case, this apparently did not happen. Behler also has talked to several other news sources, telling stories of stolen machines, unencrypted memory cards used in the elections and other security lapses.

The outcome of the 2002 Georgia elections is also used as "proof" of a tie between Republicans and machine manufacturers. Republican candidate Sonny Perdue won his bid for the governor's seat with 51 percent of the vote, ousting Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes. The fact that it was the first time since Georgia allowed consecutive gubernatorial terms in 1978 that the incumbent didn't win added gasoline to the fire as far as e-voting activists were concerned. In addition, former Sen. Max Cleland (D) lost his bid for reelection to Saxby Chambliss (R) that same year in a 53 percent to 46 percent split. A week earlier, he was ahead with 49 percent of the vote, compared to Chambliss's 44 percent.

Diebold spokesman David Bear said that there were no "widespread irregularities" in the Georgia election, only normal glitches that happen at polling places every time people cast their votes. He dismissed the notion that there is a "cabal of nefarious folks [who] are working in concert to sway an election." No mainstream organization, media or otherwise, has been able to substantiate the conspiracy theorists' allegations about the 2002 Georgia election.

There are many other conspiracy theories being circulated online, some of which can be accessed at sites like Commondreams.org, Blackboxvoting.org, Alternet.org, Votescam.com and CountTheVote.org. Bev Harris's interview with Rob Behler appears at the Scoop.co.nz site. Groups such as Truevotemd.org, MoveOn.org and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also have pages dedicated to electronic voting.

-- By Robert MacMillan, washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

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