Election theft Y2K: 1988 warnings ignored

Expanded from the 11-19-2000 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

"There is probably a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island waiting to happen in some election, just as a Richter 8 earthquake is waiting to happen in California." — Willis Ware, Rand Corporation computer expert, The New Yorker, Nov. 7, 19881

Longtime subscribers to the Tribune can ask for their money back for this edition on grounds that this column is a re-run of a recount of a tragedy.

In November and December of 1988, I printed a series called "The Sting." I have been quoting myself ever since.

The publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal thought enough of the material that he personally brought it to his editors, who printed part of it.

Over the years, some credible voices joined my lonely howl. When he chaired Common Cause Nevada, my late Sparks Tribune colleague in columny, Orland T. Outland took the issue to the Nevada Legislature. When he presented his concerns to one committee, the scope of the hearing was immediately narrowed. An interim study resulted, but not much changed. Punchcard voting remains prone to error, manipulation and outright fraud.

My experience with the punchcard system began in a worst case scenario. More than two decades ago, a couple of candidates and local officials wanted me to investigate the Washoe County (Reno-Sparks) Nev., computer count system because a lot of things didn't add up.

One candidate had his election recounted. A few chads fell out, but the close election stood.

However, the computer consultants I hired sensitized me to everything you see happening in south Florida right now.

I became so frustrated after that election, I took Dear Abby's advice and began to put my feelings in writing. More than 500 pages later, I finished the book and moved on, leaving the second draft for some future time.

For more than two decades, I have collected horror stories and watched easily avoidable errors repeat themselves.

Fortunately, most counties in Nevada and nationwide have moved away from punchcards, a technology which has its roots in the earliest days of computers and actually goes back to cloth-weaving looms!

Joseph P. Harris conceived of punchcard voting back in the 1920s as a cure for the legendary fixed elections of Chicago and New York City.2 The cure may finally have proven worse than the disease.

Registrars of voters are understandably defensive about the security of their systems, especially with an inquisitor like me.

During that long-ago punchcard recount, one of my consultants found my behavior quite amusing.

"You've been swatting at gnats and swallowing camels," he chuckled. Later, he proceeded to show me many of the system's vulnerabilities to intrusion.

But could a handcount have caught vote-switching done by software intrusion?

Yes. However, in Washoe County's case, the actual election ballots were stored in a poorly secured area in a room with plenty of blank, leftover punchcards. Anyone could have entered the storage room by forcing the lock with a credit card. Two guys with a thermos of coffee and some push pins could have changed enough ballots over a weekend to conform the cards with the election night computer count. There would have been plenty of time. Legally, a recount couldn't take place until several weeks after the election.

Back then, a lot of wiseguys made big macho bets on elections. One Gomorrah South character told me that a deal had actually been shopped on the street in Las Vegas: up to 8,000 votes for just $3,000. Untraceable, changed on the computer count.

In this column of Nov. 25, 1988, I published a checklist of computer-counted elections which had gone wrong resulting in huge numbers of voters becoming "electronically disenfranchised."

For instance, in Orange County, Calif., in 1980, computers moved about 15,000 primary votes intended for either Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter to Lyndon LaRouche or Jerry Brown.

In Missoula, Mont., in 1968, voters who thought they were voting for Hubert Humphrey voted for Richard Nixon, and vice-versa. Sound familiar?

How hard is computer count fraud to trace? In 1988, the New Yorker magazine reported on a study done by experts at Notre Dame University.

They "calculated that the number of possible programming pathways for a program (to change the count) executed through a standard punchcard ballot would be two to the nine-hundred-and-sixtieth power — a one followed by 228 zeros."

One Illinois election official estimated that testing all possible ballot punch configurations would occupy 20 staff members full time for 477 years, I noted in my 1988 series.3

I have always believed that a computer punchcard election was stolen right here in River City more than 20 years ago. Backchannels even identified the name of the good soul who wrote the program.

He had been asked by his bosses to solve a challenging theoretical problem and never knew to what nefarious use it would be put.

Because of the lack of security for the physical punchcards, all evidence could have been destroyed weeks before the recount.

DONE THAT — First-hand account of the 1998 Reid-Ensign recount

Newtering our shamelessly naked voting behavior

UPDATE — How Dubya can steal it again in 2004

Do I think there's been criminality in Florida?


But there exists such a damning case against punchcard voting that handcounting original ballots is the only fair thing to do with the presidency on the line.

"Election officials and lawmakers need to take a long, hard look at computerized election procedures and the laws governing them," I wrote a dozen years ago.

The Barbwire Sting Files will never be closed as long as camels can still get through the eye of this particular needle.

Take it from me, camels leave an awful aftertaste which never really goes away.

COMSTOCK HOTEL WORKERS — Read about your rights when laid off

Riverboat Casino pours water on the drowning

Frankenstein casinos and the pre-assigned blame game

Sparks Tribune muckrakers show workers how to use the law against hotel ownership

ELECTION POST-MORTEMS FOR A SUNDAY MORNING. If you're not doing anything of great social, religious or athletic significance this morning at 11:30, join me on KOLO TV-8's Nevada Newsmakers. Sam Shad and the usual suspects will dissect the Y2K political wars and the media which further mangled them.

Sam's guests will include Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons, R-Reno, and veteran Newschannel 8 reporters Dennis Myers (also a columnist for this newspaper and the Las Vegas Business Press) and Andrea Engleman, producer of the station's campaign adwatch and former executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

COMSTOCK HOTEL EMPLOYEES — The stories linked in the sidebar at left tell how Riverboat employees, with a little help from the Barbwire and the Sparks Tribune, were able to organize and win more than $70,000 in compensation after the Riverboat closed in 1997 under circumstances very similar to the Comstock. Both properties are owned by members of the wealthy Douglass family, old guard Reno gamblers who treat workers the old fashioned way, like cattle. Alas, some Riverboat employees went to work at their sister hotel and are now suffering deja vu all over again.

The Federal WARN Act mandates that such businesses give workers 60 days notice of termination. As with the Riverboat, the Comstock has attempted to take advantage of the law's business emergency loophole. Like the Riverboat, the Comstock blames competition from tribal casinos in California as a way around the law.

Take heart. No less than the state of Nevada is on your side. Nevada's top budget official recently said that tribal operations have not yet made a dent in gambling revenues on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

Nevada state budget director Perry Comeaux recently told the media that "there (has been) no real impact and, because tribal casinos still aren't up and running along the major highways leading to Nevada, he doesn't expect much impact in the next two years," the Carson City Nevada Appeal reported on Oct. 31.

"'I think the Indian gaming thing will creep up on us,' he said. 'I don't foresee any impact for the next couple of years because they've got to get the buildings up first.'"

Mr. Comeaux apparently isn't alone in those sentiments. Veteran reporter Geoff Dornan added that "gaming revenue forecasts by Gaming Control, the budget office, LCB and outside consultants" all forecast healthy growth in Nevada gambling revenues.

Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Find a lawyer and bust their chops.

Be well. Raise hell. | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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Copyright © 1988-2004 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

1 Ronnie Dugger, "Annals of Democracy — Counting Votes" The New Yorker, 11-7-88, p. 44.
2 Ibid. at 45.
3 Ibid. at 100, 102.

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