A subplot of the movie Office Space involves three programmers inserting a computer virus into their firm's accounting system to surreptitiously transfer fractions of a penny to a secret bank account hundreds if not thousands of times each day.
Their theory holds that in any transactions resulting in balances figured down to fractions of a cent, which is common in their firm, the accounting department rounds down for simplicity sake, leaving daily balances that no one notices. What the accounting department doesn't need certainly wouldn't be missed, especially if the virus took only a little bit each day.
The conspirators figured that after several years they would be rich and no one would be the wiser. Movies being what they are, the chief code writer in the group misplaces a decimal point and the results are not at all what they expected.
I bring this up because all the polls in Massachusetts, which rivals Chicago for corruption in politics, are showing a very, very close race for the US Senate seat that opened up after Democrat Ed Kennedy died.
Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, is smart, clean, articulate and swarming all over the once insurmountable lead in the polls no longer being enjoyed by the Democrat's handpicked successor to Kennedy, Martha Coakley. Coakley is on the ropes for being a puppet of special interests, and a status quo Democrat who will continue to tax and spend with no regard to the wishes of Massachusetts voters.
The special election is next Tuesday and both sides are working to get the win. Brown is surging while Coakley hopes she can hold him off for a few more days - but the spread is razor thin, well within the margin of error. The race is considered a toss up and could go down to the wire. So what will be the deciding factor in which side wins?
Considering that we're talking about Massachusetts, perhaps the vote counters will determine the race. Not the people - the machines. What with the movement away from mechanical voting machines to optical scanners that operate based on commands from computer programs, it would be wise for Republicans who are making a massive effort on Brown's behalf to keep a very close eye on the scanners on election day.
How can pre-programmed computerized vote counters change the outcome of an election you may be asking?
Well, you start long before election day, by writing what amounts to a virus into the program that gives instructions to the software that in turn gives instructions to the hardware that displays the counts.
Say for instance that you have a precinct in which about 5,000 people vote in one day, at a polling place that is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. That is 14 hours, times 60 minutes per hour, or a total of 840 minutes. That means that 6 people per minute have to vote in that precinct, every minute of the day, which further means that a vote has to be cast every 10 seconds from the instant the polls open at 6 a.m. until 8 p.m.
There should be massive lines at the polling place ALL DAY LONG because 5,000 people voting in one spot is one hell of a lot of people - even when they are spread out over 14 hours.
Now, let's say that on election day the polls are dead even - and the other polls, where you actually cast a vote, are manned by loyal Ed Kennedy Democrats, working like they should, bantering with their Republican counterparts, but knowing they may not have a public trough patronage job tomorrow unless the handpicked Kennedy successor wins. They'll probably be pacing back and forth all day long, really working for a change, calling in all registered Democrats. They'll be hoping against hope that the Independents, Tea Party supporters and Republicans didn't see a video proving that the handpicked Kennedy successor lied about not seeing a crime take place right in front of her in D.C. the previous week, or another showing her saying something really stupid about the status of terrorism in the world. Such people might be worried about the outcome of the race.
Unless the race is in a state where the vote scanners have a virus in the program that automatically advances the count for the "appropriate" candidate 3 percent of the time. Meaning each time 100 votes are cast, the counter "slips" and adds three votes on the Democrat side.
If you have ever been at a busy precinct, and remember a precinct with 5,000 people voting in one day is a very, very busy precinct, you'll know that the poll workers are far too busy checking off names, handling questions and dealing with problems to stand next to the scanner all day making sure the counts don't mysteriously skip ahead.
In fact, considering that a precinct where 5,000 people vote can have no down times, and I mean none if that many people are to go through in one session, everyone will be too busy all day long to check the count after each ballot is scanned. What really will happen is that there will be lines getting in, starting probably at 5 a.m., then lines at the check-in desks, then lines at the tables where the ballots are filled out, then lines at the scanner(s) as people submit them before leaving.
There should be lines of cars coming in - ALL DAY LONG - and lines of cars waiting to leave - ALL DAY LONG. There should be a poll worker standing near each scanner, making sure that if there are problems or questions they can be handled quickly to keep the lines moving. But it is not likely they will be watching the counters.
In fact, the media, which can successfully be used to assist in this scenario, is very helpful in that reporters like to know what the count is at certain milestones - say at 9 or 10 a.m., and again after lunch, just before the dinner hour and of course at the end of the night. Poll watchers are very helpful to the media in that they only have to glance at the counter on the machine that tells how many votes have been cast at any point in the day. The reporters will report long lines before the polls opened, give a count at mid-morning, then disappear until early evening when they'll come back to get the results.
In their absence, voters should have been moving steadily through the process at a rate of 6 per minute all day long, until all 5,000 have voted. If the media asks about the final tally, the head poll worker will just give the number showing on the the scanner and that will be that.
The only way to find out if the number registered by the scanner counter is accurate is to go through the check-in logs and manually count each person who was logged in. The chances of this happening on a widespread basis are virtually zero.
Want to know why?
Because if the program for either the scanner, or the counting system if it is separate, is tweaked to give a 3 percent preference to one party over another, in a precinct where 5,000 votes were cast, the counter would add three extra votes every time 100 ballots were scanned, or about once every 15 minutes. The final outcome would be 2,584 to the winner and 2,416 to the loser if 5,000 votes were cast. (I realize these numbers are approximate, so don't get all squirrely with me. It is the principle I'm talking about here.)
If that number, or something close to it, came up - and was mirrored across the state - the pundits and pollsters would all go "SEE, it was within the margin of error just like we predicted. But the Republican just couldn't pull it off in such a Democrat leaning state."
And while the results would be within the margin of error that the polls predicted, they would be way outside the margin where a recount is required - usually if the results are closer than one-half of one percent of the total number of votes. If they aren't within that percentage, the challenging party usually has to pay for the recount, which is quite expensive and usually discouraged, especially in the absence of serious evidence of chicanery.
The chances of poll workers coming back in to spend days going through the manual check-in logs, and more days going through the paper ballots are highly unlikely unless ordered by a judge or required by law. Again, everyone would be saying "close but no cigar" and telling the loser to buck up and stop looking like a spoil sport.
Do I think this could happen this Tuesday in Massachusetts? I don't know, what do you think?
As far as possibility, political bosses who prefer to rule through power and manipulation rather than reason and performance have been finding ways to steal elections ever since Democracy first came on the scene.
I suppose a stolen election can happen anywhere, including Massachusetts this Tuesday.
But to see that it isn't stolen, at least through a scenario of this sort, the Massachusetts GOP chairman should order the Republican committees in every community to check the scanners at every polling place in their jurisdiction. (This is done by running a known number of test ballots, with a known number of votes for each position, through the scanners - and the backup scanners - before the actual voting starts.) I would use more than 100 ballots, maybe 500 would be better, and I would do the test between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., just before the polls open.
Then I would keep GOP poll watchers stationed near the scanners all day to discourage tampering. Then I would run another test right after the results are announced, but before the machines are moved out of the polling place.
Excessive? Unnecessary? Well, not if you consider that the fate of the free world hangs in the balance. I'm not kidding. Americans need to know that their government is responsive, and if it isn't that they can change it. What better place for that to be shown than in Massachusetts on Tuesday?
Thursday, January 14, 2010