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Laramie Movie Scope:
Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections

A troubling documentary of election results in doubt

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 18, 2008 -- This left-leaning documentary film touches upon several troubling trends in 21st Century voting, including unsecured, vulnerable electronic voting machines which produce no verifiable paper trail, and lingering questions over who really was elected president in 2000 and 2004 because of voting irregularities in Florida, Ohio and other states. It also suggests what voters can do to make sure their votes in future elections actually get counted. Although the documentary does not touch on the troubling trend toward strict voter indentification standards which disenfranchise some voters, it does touch on the move to disqualify convicted felons from voting (and consequently may disenfranchise any person who is unlucky enough to have the same name as a convicted felon).

This documentary argues that while the United States talks a good game when it comes the basic right to vote, it doesn't put its money where it's mouth is. Voters must cope with poorly-designed voting machines that are easily hacked and leave no paper trail for proper auditing of the vote. In the case of many electronic voting machines, the voter has no way of knowing if his vote has been recorded. He has no way of knowing if his vote has been removed or “flipped” so that his vote was changed to that of a candidate he did not vote for.

Have elections been rigged? The documentary says yes, but the evidence is largely circumstantial. Cases in which there were many more recorded votes than voters, or an unusual number of undervotes (where large numbers of voters were expected to vote in a hotly-contested race, but according to the official tally, a lot of people unexpectedly did't vote for any candidate). The documentary argues these undervotes seem to occur only in precincts that would be expected to vote for Democratic candidates. Further evidence of vote tampering is the discrepancy between voter exit polls and the recorded vote, polls which in some cases should have been accurate to within one percent of the actual vote, were way off. The documentary argues that there were a significant number of such anomolies in the 2000 and 2004 elections, and all the anomolies in all the states favored one candidate, George Bush.

The documentary further noted that Republicans ran the voting in those states with the suspicious vote totals, and in some cases Bush campaign officials were also in charge of the elections, or even were relatives of Bush, in the case of Florida. Other knock-down-the-vote strategies in Ohio included reducing the number of voting machines in precincts where minorities vote, resulting in people standing in line up to 12 hours. Many people, of course, don't have all day to vote, and had to leave. One man interviewed for the documentary said his name somehow disappeared from the voting rolls sometime between the primary, when he voted, and the general election, where his vote on a “provisional ballot” was never counted. Other events plaguing polls where minorities vote include mysterious malfunctions of voting machines and mysterious power outages at polling places.

In one interview (repeated in televised testimony included in the DVD), computer specialist Clint Curtis said he was asked by Florida Representative Thomas Charles “Tom” Feeney III (who would later become a Congressman from Florida) to write a program that would allow votes to be digitally “flipped” from one candidate to another. He said the program he developed would be invisible to elections officials. Curtis said his superiors at Yang Enterprises told him the purpose of the computer code (and the bid the company was hoping to get) was to “flip the vote in South Florida.” The same statement is reportedly included in an affidaivit Curtis signed. A few months after this incident Feeney became one of the main players in Republican attempts to certify Florida's contested 2000 Presidential election results. Curtis later resigned from Yang Enterprises and ran against Feeney in an election. He lost the election, but is currently challenging the election results.

Probably the most shocking case in the film has to do with Utah's Emery County Clerk Bruce Funk. With 25 years experience running elections, Funk was suspicious when he found discrepancies in several state-supplied Diebold electronic voting machines. Some of them appeared to be used, instead of new. He invited Black Box Voting, a non-profit group, to examine the machines, which were found to have serious security flaws. He gave a report to the Emery County commissioners and proposed to use the county's current voting equipment in the next election rather than the new voting machines supplied by the state. In short order, Funk found himself locked out of his own office. He was told he could not oversee the Diebold company employees who were working on the county's election machines. He soon found himself out of a job.

Michael Shamos, a noted computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University confirmed the security flaw found by Black Box Voting. It allows any person with access to a Diebold machine to change a ballot file or even to completely change the machine's system code. The machines could also be controlled via a modem from a remote location. The machines have “back door” vulnerabilities on multiple levels. There is also a bootloader problem that can't be fixed solely by software. “It is like the nuclear bomb for e-voting systems” said Avi Rubin, computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “It's the deal breaker. It really makes the security flaws that we found (in prior years) look trivial,” according to an article at SecurityFocus.com.

The documentary doesn't exactly tell the whole story about Funk being forced out of his job, however. He in fact did resign verbally under pressure from state and Diebold company officials, but changed his mind the next day, according to the Security Focus article. If he had not resigned under pressure, he'd probably still be able to retain his office, at least until the next election. Still, it is a sobering example of corporate power being brought against a county clerk in a small county.

As one election expert put it, how come an ATM machine can be designed which allows you to make a secure, auditable transaction, complete with a paper printout, while some election machines can't do the same thing? Election machines have been designed with a friendly touchscreen interface, but which also print out a paper ballot which the voter can check for accuracy before finalizing his vote. The voter then drops the paper ballot in the election box after finalizing his vote. That creates a paper trail which can be audited for accuracy. Some Diebold voting machines can create a printout, in fact they are required to in Utah, but the print is so tiny the voter needs a special magnifying glass to read it. As Bruce Funk also discovered in his tests of the Diebold machines, the paper printouts also tend to jam. What the documentary is arguing for is a digitially secure voting machine which combines the big screen easy-to-see advantages of a computer voting system while at the same time producing a paper ballot that is also easy to read, to verify and to audit. Voting machines which are not secure against tampering and which do not create a paper ballot easily verifiable both by the voter and by election officials, should not be certified for use in any election.

This DVD includes deleted scenes, extended interviews and speeches regarding voting. The DVD also has a series of suggested voting reforms, including making election day a national holiday to give people more time to vote. People are also encouraged to become election workers and observers, to write letters to the editor, and of course, to share this movie with others. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)