Critics of the Diebold (search) touch-screen voting machines turned their attention Wednesday from the machines themselves to the computers that will tally the final vote, saying the outcome is so easy to manipulate that even a monkey could do it.
And they showed video of a monkey hacking the system to prove it.
In the minute-long video produced by Black Box Voting (search), Baxter the chimp is shown deleting the audit log that is supposed to keep track of changes in the Diebold central tabulator, the computer and program that keeps track of county vote totals.
Black Box Voting founder Bev Harris said the demonstration shows that the system — which will be used in more than 30 states, including Maryland — is dangerously inadequate when it comes to stopping election fraud.
But a Diebold spokesman insisted that the system is secure despite "incessant" criticism from organizations such as Black Box Voting.
"The fact of the matter is what you saw was a staged production ... analogous to a magic show," said David Bear, the Diebold spokesman.
Even if the system could be hacked, he said, it could only be done by a person with "unfettered access to the system." Bear noted that elections are not just the machines, but also the people who work the elections.
"Quite honestly it's somewhat insulting to elections officials and volunteers," he said to the idea that elections officers would tamper with vote results.
He cited "multiple levels of redundancy" that would ensure that "any deviation would immediately be noticed" and dealt with.
But Black Box Voting on Wednesday demonstrated two quick ways that "an unscrupulous person with no computer skills whatsoever" could sabotage vote totals, according to Associate Director Andy Stephenson.
The entire voting record can be deleted by choosing "reset the election" on a drop-down menu, he said, or a hacker can destroy a tabulator's ability to recognize ballots by un-selecting three checkboxes on a program control panel.
Once those changes are made, a hacker could cover his tracks by deleting the audit log, as Baxter did.
The Diebold central tabulators use a program called "GEMS" that saves vote totals in Microsoft Access, a Windows-based database program.
GEMS (search) requires users to enter a password to access the vote totals, but Harris showed that the totals can also be opened -- and altered -- with Access, without ever running GEMS.
Because Access functions are already built in to the Windows operating system, the totals could be altered even if a computer did not have Access installed on it, said Herbert Thompson, a computer security expert who teaches at the Florida Institute of Technology (search). He demonstrated how to change vote totals with a six-line program in Microsoft notepad, "a simple text editor" that comes with all copies of Windows.
But Maryland election officials agreed with Bear that no hacking can happen unless the hacker is physically at the computer. The central tabulators are safe from any such outside tampering, said Donna Duncan, director for the Maryland State Board of Elections election management division.
State elections officials also said Wednesday that they are confident they can protect the system from a decidedly lower-tech threat.
Elections administrator Linda Lamone (search) said she told Maryland State Police and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security in a conference call Wednesday that contingency plans are in place, should a terrorist attack or weather disaster occur during the election.
Without going into details, Lamone told the Election Law Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee that alternative polling sites have been identified and the elections board is prepared to handle a recount, should it be necessary.
"We probably have the most secure system in the nation," said Lamone, adding that her office is working with state police to "go over and above" security measures currently in place.
Lamone, who was dismissed earlier this month as elections administrator before winning a stay from the state's highest court, said all of Maryland's voting machines were upgraded this summer and are on schedule to be used Nov. 2. She said the machines will also undergo a series of security tests before and on the day of the election.
She did not discuss the potential for outright acts of aggression at the polls, something that worries Nancy Dacek, president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
Dacek said Wednesday that she fears that critics of the new voting system may try to physically sabotage the machines. She pointed to a recent incident in which a poll judge had to be ordered to return a voting machine that was used for demonstrations at an suburban folk festival.
As a precaution against such sabotage, some Montgomery County machines will not be set up until the morning of the election, rather than the usual night before.
Republican Delegate Jean Cryor told Lamone she hopes the state is ready for whatever happens after the election.
"I think votes will be challenged all over the state," she said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.