SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ambushing registrars and tracking down executives at their homes and offices, a literary publicist has uncovered conflicts of interests and security flaws inside the companies that make electronic ballot machines.
Searching the Web and poring over newspaper clippings, Bev Harris has unearthed obscure arrest records, ties to conservative political groups and other embarrassing secrets of senior executives at voting companies.
Her conclusion: there will be so many problems with the more than 100,000 paperless voting terminals to be used in the November presidential election that the fiasco will dwarf Florida's hanging chad debacle of 2000.
"We have a train wreck that's definitely going to happen," Harris said. "We have conflict of interest, we've taken the checks and balances away, and we know the votes are already being miscounted fairly frequently. This is going to be huge."
Harris, 52, didn't set out to become a muckraking voting technology expert.
Accustomed to working with manuscripts and authors in suburban Seattle, she preferred doting on her new grandchild to debating politics. She still doesn't vote regularly.
But when Harris was idly surfing the Web during a lunch break two years ago, she became obsessed with an issue essential to democracy, quickly becoming the unlikely center of a movement to ensure integrity in the nation's voting systems.
Critics say Harris, author of "Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century," is a fear-mongering grandstander and a presumptuous conspiracy theorist. The prime target of one investigation — voting equipment maker Diebold Inc. — says her antics undermine democracy.
"We must not frighten voters or inadvertently provide any type of disincentive to voting," Diebold spokesman David Bear wrote in an e-mail when asked to respond to Harris' claims that the company's software is riggable and insecure. "While security is an important issue ... improvements can and will be made."
Others question the motives behind her obsessive investigations of politicians and executives at big voting equipment companies such as Diebold, Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. and Election Systems & Services Inc.
"She bases her whole theory on a continuous string of untruths," said Lou Ann Linehan, chief of staff for Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (search). In the 1990s, Hagel headed voting equipment company American Information Systems Inc., which later became ES&S. Hagel maintains investments between $1 million and $6 million in McCarthy Group Inc., a private bank with a large stake in ES&S.
Harris, who dubs Hagel "poster boy for conflict of interest," says the Republican did not disclose the extent of his American Information Systems involvement and questions whether a former executive of a company whose machines count votes in precincts nationwide should run for public office. Hagel's staff insist that his former career doesn't affect his political life.
"I don't know if it's sloppy research or she doesn't care," Linehan said. "I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it because it's all so ridiculous."
Criticism, as well as legal threats from ES&S, Diebold and other companies, has enervated Harris, whose blond hair turned completely gray last year. But legions of fans — from New Zealand bloggers to respected computer scientists — encourage her.
Exploiting the power of the Internet, Harris has created a Web site that documents hundreds of local, county and state elections that have been botched or contested because of flaws with voting software.
She details an incestuous web of voting company executives, politicians and election officials — people who are often related or have worked for each other.
Her style is brash. She drives her Toyota Corolla and rental cars thousands of miles to ambush registrars in counties where election results didn't match exit polls.
Frustrated that few mainstream journalists have publicized her exploits, Harris once left voice mail for Washington Post star Bob Woodward. When he didn't call back, she trashed him in a Web forum called "Media Whores Online."
"It took me a while to recognize that despite her over-the-top personal style, she was doing valuable sleuthing," said Douglas Jones, associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and a member of Iowa's Board of Examiners for e-voting. "But her style, which tends to be a bit alarmist and tends to appeal to conspiracy theorists, may be necessary to get the attention of the people who need to pay attention."
Harris, who in the 1990s freelanced as an investigator for companies that suspected employees of embezzling, dismisses conspiracies. She blames a lack of federal oversight, and human nature for voting problems such as those in the November 2002 election, when Bernalillo County, N.M.'s turnout was 48,000 — but only 36,000 votes were tallied on Sequoia touchscreens.
"I never looked at this as a computer problem or even a conspiracy," said Harris. "I always looked at it as an auditing problem, the exact equivalent of taking away canceled checks, invoices and receipts. You take away oversight — someone will steal. I guarantee it."
Harris' obsession with e-voting began during a lunch break in autumn 2002. On the Web, she stumbled upon an article called "Elections in America — Assume Crooks are in Control," by freelance journalist Lynn Landes.
Harris began wondering how easy it would be to change electronic ballots to rig an election without a trace.
By trial and error, she tracked down people who work at voting companies by trolling on online job boards, high school reunion sites and other Internet haunts. She collected e-mail addresses and phone numbers for eight dozen programmers. Some boasted they could easily insert malicious code, alter or delete ballots and "flip" an election.
Harris wondered how easily these people could be bribed.
"I figured that if a middle-aged woman like me who has never done a 'covert op' in her life, working on the Internet, could find the people who program our voting machines, then certainly the bad guys must know who they are," she wrote in her roughly edited book, which reads the way Harris talks — full of enthusiasm, gall and expressions such as "oookay" and "right," dripping with sarcasm.
She took a loan from her father to self-publish her book. When critics said she was fear-mongering for money, she posted chapters free online. She says the book has cost her and her second husband, who works at Boeing Co., about $50,000, and they've made almost nothing from it.
In January 2003, Harris did a Google search for Vancouver, B.C.-based Global Election Systems Inc., the software company Diebold acquired in 2002. On the search engine's 15th page of hits was a link to proprietary code, which Harris burned on seven CDs and stashed in a safe-deposit box. She didn't sleep for 44 hours while downloading 40,000 files.
Blogs began buzzing about secret voting software without password protection. Eventually, computer scientists at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities analyzed the code.
Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins, concluded that any clever 15-year-old could rig the system and vote multiple times. Alarmingly, "1111" was Diebold's default password identification number for microchip-embedded "smartcards" that voting administrators used.
Diebold issued a 27-page rebuttal, insisting the code was out of date and not used in more than 30,000 machines nationwide. But the study hit a nerve among computer scientists, who lended legitimacy to a ragtag movement.
"I worry that sometimes her arguments sound farfetched, and I have been told on more than one occasion that she is hurting the credibility of all of us with her wild theories," Rubin said. "On balance, though, I am grateful for the work that she does. We each have our own style."
Harris hopes more secretaries of state reach the conclusion of California's Kevin Shelley, who this year banned some Diebold machines and required counties to have a paper record of ballots.
"I would consider this last year a year of crisis," said Harris, who last year struggled to meet mortgage and heat payments. "I didn't want to get involved in this. I just don't understand how anyone could discover this stuff and live with themselves if they didn't say anything about it."