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'Hacking' casts doubt on security of ballots

Voting is always a matter of faith: You give up your ballot to the dark machine and hope to avoid human error, or worse. I used to live in a state where it was rumored that the dead took part in municipal elections; given the risks, there's something comforting about leaving the counting to a cold, impartial machine.

Unless the machine is disturbingly easy to compromise, too.

That's the message of "Hacking Democracy," the HBO documentary that premieres tonight at 9, timed to stir up maximum ire before next week's election. Computers, we're told, will count more than 80 percent of America's votes next Tuesday. And one small group of activists is convinced that now the ballots are less secure than ever.

Their leader is Bev Harris, an unassuming Seattle resident who is first introduced as "a grandmother." This makes her sound quaint and feeble and, in truth, is a little unfair. Harris is also a professional writer, a master at the Freedom of Information Act request, and a Googler par excellence. In 2002, an online search for information about voting machines led her to an unsecured website for Diebold , the Ohio company that holds a vast portion of the nation's electronic voting machine market.

She found pages and pages of programming code, gibberish to her untrained eye. But her instinct was to download it and pass it around. A computer security expert at Johns Hopkins University confirmed what she feared: that anyone with computer know-how, and access to the right memory card, could tap into the code and alter an election.

"Hacking Democracy" follows the ensuing crusade, as Harris and a handful of compatriots -- academics, former political candidates, a few voting officials -- try to spread the word that the nation's elections are in jeopardy. They road-trip to Alabama and Florida, prompt hearings in California, embarrass a Florida election supervisor who's steeped in denial. This is, in part, a story about how ordinary people turn to activism, but it's also a sad little parable about how hard it is to stir

up outrage over the nuts and bolts of democracy. In truth, the filmmakers face a similar challenge; they do their best to build up tension, but it's hard to wring excitement from a computer printout.

The closest to an action sequence comes as Harris, clinging to a giant bag of trash that contains receipts from voting machines, engages in an awkward tug-of-war with a Florida civil service worker. There is a fair amount of rifling through trash in this film (Harris informs us, at one point, that it's legal) and a lot of innuendo about how many elections may or may not have gone right. But there's no smoking gun, no absolute proof that, because someone can hack, anyone has.

Maybe that's the reason why Harris's cause is still largely unknown. Maybe it's collective denial, as the film seems to suggest. Or maybe it's just that we're hard-pressed to find an alternative that seems any more secure . In one brief sequence, the filmmakers play a stream of 2004 Election Day phone calls to the watchdog group Common Cause, in which people complain about mismanaged poll sites and voters forced to wait outside for hours in the rain.

There are an awful lot of ways to disenfranchise people, without any need for computer skills. After all, those paper ballots with the hanging chads haven't worked out so well, either.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at She blogs at

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