The Big Rig

Lately it seems that virtually everyone I know — Democrats, Republicans, and Naderites alike — is espousing outlandish theories about plots to sway, postpone, or outright steal next month's election. “You just watch,” a normally levelheaded friend of mine told me. “Three days before election day they're going to bring Osama out of his subterranean cell and parade him around like the Republican mascot.”

Of course, I realize that we are a nation of X-Files-watching, Art Bell-listening, wigged-out paranoiacs, but it's really getting to me, and this is why I decided to visit Ben Adida, who is a star Ph.D. student at MIT in the field of cryptography and information security. Adida's area of focus is voting machines and processes, and his specialty is breaking into them. It's his job, as part of the Caltech-MIT/Voting Technology Project, to determine the ways in which an election can be stolen right out of the ballot box.

When I meet Adida at his cubbyhole of an office on the MIT campus, he is wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a pair of blue Puma sneakers. In short, he has the look of your classic twentysomething hacker from the movies, though he is quick to point out that the proper term for cyber-scoundrels is “cracker.”

“Technically, a hacker is simply a clever programmer, whereas a cracker is someone who actually breaks into systems,” Adida explains. When it comes to voting machines, he is emphatic. “Every machine can be cracked into,” he says.

These days, most of the publicized concerns about voting machines involve the direct-recording electric (DRE) models-generally, touch-screen systems that resemble ATMs. The chief problem with these is that they leave no paper trail, and this could create quite a ruckus when George W. Bush and/or John Kerry demand recounts.

If you haven't heard much about DREs in the Boston press, that's because they are not currently approved for use in Massachusetts. This doesn't mean you'll be using the punch cards that caused so much trouble in Florida; that system has been banned in this state since 1997. Those creaky old mechanical-lever machines once commonplace here, meanwhile, also have been outlawed effective with next month's election.

As a result, if you live in Massachusetts, you will likely be voting via the optical scanner system, which requires you to indicate your choices by filling in the bubbles on a sheet of paper, much like on the SAT. This method will be used by 55 million people, or 32 percent of voters, in the United States and is generally regarded as the most reliable.

Time to breathe easy? Not exactly. According to Adida, “No one will be able to crack into the [optical scanning] system via the Internet from their basement and skew the results. However, the crackers can succeed if they have hands-on access to the actual machine.”

Here is one possible scenario for how this could be done: Several weeks before the election, a cracker might gain access to an optical scanning device and reprogram it to favor a particular candidate. This is where things get interesting. Because the list of candidates is often not entered into the system until hours before an election, the crackers have no way of knowing which candidate to pick — A, B, or C. So they program the machine to favor the candidate who gets the most votes between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., then tell their supporters to vote first thing in the morning. “Usually, when people hear this type of scenario for the first time they freak out,” Adida says with a mischievous smile.

There are simpler methods, too. For example, many optical scanning machines use red lasers to scan, which means that they cannot read red ink. Theoretically, someone could pass out red pens at a voting station in a precinct known to vote a certain way, invalidating many of that precinct's votes.

As Adida continues to ramble about potential weaknesses in our voting system, I can't help but feel that some amount of paranoia is justified. According to the Caltech-MIT/Voting Technology Project, some 120,000 votes by Massachusetts residents were not counted in the 2000 presidential election. You have to wonder whether all of these invalidated ballots were the result of simple errors. Perhaps this is why at least 12 members of Congress have signed a letter asking the United Nations to monitor this year's election. Perhaps it is time to get nervous.

When I express this to Adida, he nods somberly. “It's my job to be completely paranoid about elections,” he tells me with a heavy sigh. “Because the stakes in presidential elections are so high, the motivation to do evil is also quite high, and so we have a plan for every possible scenario.”

This is all good and fine, I tell him. Plan, plan, plan away. What I wanted to know was whether any of this might really happen. What I wanted was peace of mind. “I don't know of any optical scanning system being cracked,” Adida says finally. “But then again, it's conceivable that someone could alter the results discreetly enough that no one would ever know until it was too late.” B