'Hacking' Doesn't Crack the Code

Bev Harris puts a face on the subject of voting machine problems.
Bev Harris puts a face on the subject of voting machine problems. (Hbo)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

Something -- maybe a lot of things -- is wrong with how America conducts its elections. As you might have heard, there were a few problems down in Florida back in 2000, and more recently in the Maryland primary. No doubt, voting and vote-counting can be messy, complicated and subject to potentially outcome-shifting flaws.

With that as backdrop and five days before Election Day, HBO weighs in tonight with "Hacking Democracy," a somewhat torpid documentary that is itself complicated, flawed and messy.

The documentary's basic theme is that elections can be stolen by people able to manipulate the vote-recording software in electronic balloting machines. That should not shock anyone who has touched a computer. Given the increasing use of electronic voting machines -- they are counting about 80 percent of the votes cast today, according to the documentary -- it's no stretch to imagine that they could be worked to subvert democracy.

Could be. But "Hacking Democracy" doesn't actually show democracy's corruption. The documentary merely suggests the possibilities and tallies the suspicions, leaving viewers to come to the obvious conclusion.

To cast doubt on the results of Ohio's pivotal presidential vote in 2004, for example, the documentary dwells on a mandatory hand recount of the vote in Cuyahoga County (the documentary incorrectly identifies Cuyahoga as "a swing county"; Cuyahoga was a Democratic lock, going 2-to-1 for John Kerry). Indeed, "Hacking" finds a few things amiss, such as a random selection of ballots for the recount that might not have been so randomly selected. And?

Well, that's it. Content with introducing a vague mist of doubt, the documentary moves on.

But hold on. Surely, there was more going on in Ohio in 2004 worth raising questions about. Such as: the state's misallocation of voting machines, which led to long lines at the polls; restrictions on provisional ballots; the rejection of thousands of voter-registration forms by the Republican secretary of state (who happened to be chair of Bush's statewide campaign); Democrats alleging voter "intimidation" by Republicans; and the existence of tens of thousands of "spoiled" ballots.

Naw. At least not here.

The filmmakers also have chosen to make a TV documentary about one of the least telegenic subjects imaginable: software security flaws. To make their story more visual, and to humanize it, they've built their narrative around Bev Harris, a Seattle writer and gadfly who is convinced that electronic voting machines threaten the political process. Harris comes across as a zealot, imbued with the spirit of the righteous crusader, which is a nice way of saying she's a little hard to take.

Harris travels the country, pestering local election bureaucrats, diving in Dumpsters for discarded records and generally sounding alarms. Harris seems deeply committed to her cause. But it's not clear from the evidence here that she's some kind of prophet, either.

Harris's bete noire is Diebold Election Systems, the Ohio-based company that makes many of the suspect electronic voting systems. (Last week, for instance, Maryland election officials acknowledged that Diebold replaced a flawed electronic component in several thousand touch-screen voting machines in 2005.)

Diebold has its own problems with Harris and HBO. The company wrote to the network this week asking it to pull the documentary, which it says is filled with "egregious" errors and "inaccurate reporting."

Diebold is especially upset with the documentary's big windup, a lengthy and somewhat hard-to-follow sequence in which a computer security expert, Harri Hursti, hacks a voting system and manipulates the results of a mock election in Leon County, Fla. Diebold claims that Hursti's hacking could not be duplicated in a real election and says that Hursti has told the company as much.

In case you miss where "Hacking's" sympathies lie, the documentary pounds home the message with sinister music, grave voice-over narration and an oft-repeated rock song that goes, "Something's broken in the Promised Land / A broken promise in the Promised Land."

That lyrics quite possibly might be true. But you'll want more proof than this.

Hacking Democracy (90 minutes) premieres tonight at 9 on HBO.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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