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Election 2006: Who owns Oregon's elections?

By Jacob Fenston

“These companies are saying trust us. You’d have to say that trusting a company that has this kind of brush with the criminal element, this is something that is not acceptable.” — Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting

The accuracy of Oregon’s elections is in the hands of a private company with a history muddied by corruption. Election Systems & Software (ES&S) manufactures and programs the optical scanners that read Oregon’s ballots. The scanners use proprietary software-unavailable for inspection even to election officials-and are subject to widely publicized security flaws. The company is not publicly traded, says Bev Harris of Black Box Voting, and it’s hard to know exactly who does control the company, which counts 56 percent of the nation’s vote.

What is known about the company’s ownership, dug up by Harris, points to a twisty trail of criminality, conflict of interest and non-disclosure. In 1987 the Omaha World-Herald purchased 47 percent stake in the company, and the McCarthy Group bought 35 percent. The Omaha World-Herald, in turn, is owned by the Peter Kiewit Foundation. Harris contends that Kiewit is just about the last company that should have anything to do with an election system vendor.

Kiewit and its subsidiaries have been involved in as many as 11 cases of bid-rigging on road contracts and state and federal highway projects. With convictions in Louisiana, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska, the companies have paid millions of dollars in fines. “Kiewit has connections with both ES&S parent companies and has a track record of hiding ownership when it wants to,” says Harris. “It has a powerful profit motive for getting the people it wants into office and it has broken the law in the past to achieve its goals.”

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), referred to by Harris as the conflict of interest “poster boy,” is another question-mark in the history of the company that counts Oregon’s ballots. Hagel was chairman of ES&S’s predecessor, American Information Systems (AIS), from July 1992 until March 1995. Two weeks after stepping down, he announced his plans to run for senate. Hagel — a virtual unknown — won a surprising landslide victory over his opponent, Nebraska’s popular Democratic governor, who’d led in the polls since day one.

Which company built and programmed the machines that counted 85 percent of Nebraska’s vote that November? American Information Systems.

The company in which Hagel owned millions in stock and had run as chairman, but failed to mention on his personal disclosure documents. “This is not a gray area. This is lying,” says Harris. By the 2002 elections, Hagel still had up to $5 million of undisclosed investments in ES&S through the company’s parent, the McCarthy Group. By law senators are required to disclose the underlying assets of their investments, but Senator Hagel never mentioned the McCarthy Group’s ownership of ES&S.

With such a questionable history, election system vendors should not be trusted with our elections says Harris. And she’s not alone. At the end of June, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice released a report corroborating what Harris and other voting rights activists have been saying for years. All three of the country’s most commonly used electronic voting machines are vulnerable to attacks that could threaten state or national elections.

In what was billed as the most comprehensive study to date, the Brennan Center assembled a task force of some of the world’s most renowned scientists, voting machine experts and security specialists. The task force spent a year studying the systems most widely used, and preparing a 147-page peer-reviewed report which methodically catalogues 120 types of possible attacks and six relatively simple steps that could be taken to fend them off.

What did the report have to say to Oregonians, as we smugly fill in bubbles on our paper ballots? A paper ballot “by itself, is of questionable security value.” That’s because paper ballots are counted by machines which are vulnerable to many of the same attacks that threaten other electronic voting machines.

The report’s number-one security recommendation? “Conduct Automatic Routine Audits comparing voter-verified paper records to the electronic record following every election.” Oregon, along with 38 other states, does not conduct mandatory audits.

Oregon election officials do conduct tests on our voting machines, to ensure they are counting accurately before and after each election. But the report finds that a software attack could be programmed to run only during an election-timing itself on the voting machine’s clock to start at a certain time on election day. That means no matter how many successful tests are conducted before and after an election, the actual vote-count could be corrupted, without detection.

Jan Fenston is a journalist and stage manager who lives in Portland.


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Last Updated: August 16, 2006