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Who is Counting Your Votes? - A Closer Look at Hart InterCivic PDF Print Email
By Pokey Anderson   
November 01, 2006
Once upon a time, hardly anybody in America had ever heard of Diebold. But then, its CEO visited George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, returned to his home state of Ohio, and penned a fundraising letter. He invited people to a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser to benefit Republicans, saying he was, "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Walden O'Dell, then-CEO of Diebold, seemed stunned by the firestorm of criticism he had ignited. He apologized, later resigning as CEO.

 


No matter what citizens understand about computer code or alphabet soup-named panels advising election procedures, they know that it's important that the referees be fair in the highly competitive, sometimes ruthless environment of hardball politics. When a trillion dollars will be appropriated each year by the Congressional winners, it's easy to imagine that the competition will search for any and all advantages.  .

Meanwhile, while Diebold has served as the poster child for everything that is wrong with electronic elections, the other three largest voting machine companies in the U.S. have largely flown under the radar. "The reason Diebold gets so much heat," says Bev Harris, author of Black Box Voting, "is not because they're any worse than their competitors. It's because we got more information on them early on."  ["Rage against the machine," by Barney Gimbel, Fortune Magazine, October 30, 2006,]

Sequoia has drawn attention of late, with Congress just now noticing its ties to Venezuela. “The government should know who owns our voting machines; that is a national security concern,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, D-NY.  “There seems to have been an obvious effort to obscure the ownership of the company.” ["U.S. Investigates Voting Machines’ Venezuela Ties,: by Tim Golden, October 29, 2006, New York Times,  ]  Neither the ownership or the software of the four voting machine companies is exactly common knowledge.

None of the four major election companies has been willing to offer their source code and hardware to independent investigators for examination, unless the investigators agree their results will be bound by a secrecy contract.  

However, Ed Felten's Princeton team, through a connection with Brad Friedman of Bradblog.com, recently got access to a Diebold electronic voting machine. The team members found they could inject a virus, changing election results, with only one minute access to the machine. Access to the inside of the machine could be facilitated with a common hotel mini-bar key. Professor Felten wrote: "Though we studied a specific voting technology, we expect that a similar study of another DRE system, whether from Diebold or another vendor, would raise similar concerns about malicious code injection attacks and other problems. We studied the Diebold system because we had access to it, not because it is necessarily less secure than competing DREs. All DREs face fundamental security challenges that are not easily overcome."  ["Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine," by Ed Felten et al.,]

Jon Stokes has brilliantly laid out the difference between retail and wholesale election theft (a ballot or precinct, vs. potentially an entire state), in his piece, "How to steal an election by hacking the vote" [Version 1.01, October 27, 2006,]  He also shines a spotlight on DRE companies as one security vulnerability:
The term "black box voting" is commonly used by e-voting activists to describe the non-transparent way in which elections are carried out using DREs, with the idea being that the DRE is a "black box" that tallies votes in an invisible, proprietary, and potentially suspect manner. For my part I think the term "black box" best describes not the DRE, but the DRE manufacturer. The entire voting machine company--its corporate network, its management, its staff, its internal policies and procedures--is a giant black box that we, the voters, must trust is free of malicious influences from within and without.
He quotes long-time election expert Doug Jones, who shines the spotlight on programmers:
So long as a single programmer can covertly incorporate a few lines of simple code into a component
that he or she knows will end up in a large fraction of all voting machines, and so long as that code is not subject to exhaustive inspection, the system is vulnerable! Someone intent on fixing an election does not need to buy the support of the company, they only need to buy the support of one programmer with access to a key component!

Hart InterCivic counts votes in eleven states

 

Based in Austin, Texas, Hart InterCivic is the fourth largest voting machine company in the nation. Board chair David Hart has said that because of the business he's in he doesn't contribute to political campaigns. However, let's take a closer look at this quiet company, which has been adding more states and counties to the locations where its equipment counts the votes

Their electronic equipment, the eSlate, counts the votes of two of the nation's largest counties, in the nation's two largest states (the third largest county in the US, Harris in TX and the fifth largest county in the US, Orange in CA).  

Besides Texas and California, Hart's eSlate electronic voting machines are used in counties in Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.  

Money rolled into Hart InterCivic in 1999


Around 1999, over $40 million in cash transfusions transformed this regional commercial printer with longstanding ties to Texas state government into a national player in the electronic voting machine industry. The Hart family retained an interest, but mostly new management accompanied the money. Where did Hart InterCivic gets its capital?

One investor: Tom Hicks of Clear Channel


One of the sources was Dallas billionaire Tom Hicks' investment firm, Stratford Capital Partners.

Hicks was in the group of investors who bought the Texas Rangers baseball team from George W. Bush and others. In that windfall,  Bush put up less than 2% percent of the Rangers syndicate's original capital, should have gotten about $2.3 million from that sale, but somehow fortunately received $14.9 million of the proceeds.  This deal catapulted Bush into multi-millionaire status.

Tom Hicks and brother Steve Hicks were among top contributors to George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas.  The Hicks duo and their venture capital firm Hicks, Muse raised for Bush campaigns a total of $515,000 through the year 2000, according to Common Cause.

While governor, George W. Bush appointed Tom Hicks head of a Texas university fund, UTIMCO, which steered millions of dollars in undisclosed investments to cronies of Bush and Hicks. Between 1995 and 1998, almost a third of the $1.7 billion private equities portfolio was invested with firms personally or politically connected to Hicks or Bush. Despite pressure, UTIMCO under Hicks claimed it did not have to disclose either the destination or performance of those public moneys. They claimed the information was a trade secret, proprietary. (Sound familiar? Major voting machine manufacturers currently shield their software from independent examination, claiming that the software that electronically counts the votes of the public is a trade secret and proprietary.)   

Tom Hicks has been a Vice Chair of the media empire Clear Channel, which at last count owned over 1200 radio stations, plus television stations, three-quarter of a million billboards, and assorted other media entities. Clear Channel dominated the audience share in 100 of 112 major markets, according to a Project Censored study in 2004.

In the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Clear Channel stations sponsored patriotic rallies around the country, which often morphed into pro-Bush rallies. Clear Channel also stopped playing the Dixie Chicks, outspoken critics of George W. Bush.

As of 2004, Clear Channel executives give a greater portion of their political contributions to Republican candidates than any other large media entity. The Chair of Clear Channel, L. Lowry Mays, was also a member of the Hicks-chaired board of UTIMCO.

Another investor: Texas Growth Fund


Another major investor in Hart InterCivic enabling it to become a multi-state election player was the state government of Texas, but through a side door. The Texas Growth Fund invested $19.8 million in Hart InterCivic as it was ramping up. The fund uses money from several state trust and pension funds to invest in private businesses that promise job growth in Texas. Texas Growth Fund operates away from public oversight, claiming the companies it invests in need confidentiality. It's an odd duck, a private entity investing public funds - few if any other states have anything like this. So, behind closed doors, the Texas Growth Fund, with four of its nine seats held by appointees of the Governor of Texas, invested public money in the voting machine company that will count votes in nearly half the counties in Texas, including most of the biggest ones: Harris County, Travis County, Brazos County and Tarrant County, Texas.  

As the Austin Chronicle concluded in 2003, "the fact remains that Hart InterCivic is partially owned by the state of Texas--which itself is currently wholly owned by the Republican Party." ["The Texas Growth Fund; Cowboys, Cable, and Venture capital," by Lucius Lomax, Austin Chronicle, December 19, 2003,]

Additional investors include: Summit Capital


Summit Capital was among those who infused cash into Hart InterCivic. Now known as CapStreet Group, LLC, the firm invests in various mid-size companies. Based in Houston, it was co-founded by Fred R. Lummis, who is now listed as a Senior Adviser. In addition to Hart, the firm has invested in CardTronics. Lummis is chairman of CardTronics, which says it is the largest independent ATM network manager in the world. One could call CardTronics a cousin of Hart, as it shares financial backing and some management overlap; oddly enough, CardTronics operates in the same ATM industry as Hart competitor Diebold.  CardTronics even has a director, Robert Barone, who had served as Diebold's president and chief operating officer before Diebold entered the voting machine business.

Another of Lummis' firm's investments is in Trajen, which provides ground support and logistics to the general aviation industry and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Lummis also has served as a director of Switch & Data Facilities Co., LLC, which locates physical switching facilities for internet and telephone services in many cities.

Investigation by several researchers suggests that Fred Rice Lummis is part of an interlocking circle of people tied together by generations of wealth, intermarriage and business partnerships in Houston. It is alleged that James Baker (noted for his long association with the two Bush presidents as well as a thirty-year friendship with Dick Cheney) and William Lummis (who eventually won a long, hotly-contested battle for the mammoth Howard Hughes fortune) have business or familial ties to Fred, but this will have to wait for further research to confirm.

Hart's stance on partisanship


At a talk on electronic elections by Stanford Professor David Dill at Rice University, 2/25/04, Hart Vice President and then-spokesperson Bill Stotesbery appeared as a member of the panel. He was asked by an audience member to discuss any potential conflicts of interest by Hart's owners, and also, "Would you make a list of all shareholders who own 5% or more?"

BILL STOTESBERY: If you go to our website, they're listed on it. Hart InterCivic is a company that was started basically by families in 1912. Hart -- full control of it for about seven decades.  We were the largest commercial printer in the Southwest until about 1988. At which point, the printing business began to decline a bit as new investments were necessary.  

In 1999, we went out for venture investment and spun off the electronic group. And the shareholders are four venture groups that are from Austin, Dallas, and Houston. They're all listed on the website under our Board of Directors.  Names and bios. The Hart family retains an interest.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I'm not sure I can tell what their politics are.

BILL STOTESBERY: I don't know that I know what their politics are either. I don't know that they know what mine are. I know that Hart InterCivic is an organization of about 140 employees and lots of people associated with various parts of it.  I know that there are good Democrats, good Republicans, a couple of Greens, a couple of libertarians, some people who don't like to vote. There are dedicated Apotheists. And so, you know, we are an organization that is made up of people with diverse views. I will tell you -- no, just a second, Dan -- In a hundred years of elections, we have never been accused of allowing partisan influences to affect the elections. That's something that has to be stated strongly and without qualification, because fundamentally the integrity of these companies is what allows us to survive. So I'm not letting that statement go by without a clear and unqualified response.

"I went to vote and all I got was this lousy glitch!"


In the April 2006 primary in Tarrant County, Texas, machines made by Hart InterCivic counted some ballots as many as six times, recording 100,000 more votes than were cast. The problem was attributed to programming errors. ["Officials Wary of Electronic Voting Machines," by Ian Urbina, September 24, 2006,]

During the current, fall 2006 election, the Hart InterCivic eSlate is truncating candidate names and leaving their party identification off. Thus, in Texas, a long name, Barbara Ann Radnofsky - D looks like Barbara Ann Ra on the summary screen. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison - R becomes Kay Bailey Hutch. Worse, in several jurisdictions in Virginia, James H. 'Jim' Webb shows up as only James H. 'Jim.'  The full name shows up on the selection screen, but not the summary screen, the last thing a voter sees before irrevocably casting his or her vote.

"The votes are not affected and still count," Travis County, Texas Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. "I don't like it. We've been asking the vendor to address this issue for a couple of years now," she said. ["Voting machines chop off candidates' names," by Tara Copp, Austin American-Statesman, October 26, 2006]  

Jean Jensen, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, pledged to have it fixed by the 2007 statewide elections. "You better believe it," Jensen said. "If I have to personally get on a plane and bring Hart InterCivic people here myself, it'll be corrected." ["Some Voting Machines Chop Off Candidates' Names," by Leef Smith, Washington Post, October 24, 2006]

"It's a quirk of older system versions" of the eSlate, an official spokesperson of Hart InterCivic told me on October 27, assuring me that every vote will still count. "It's a cosmetic issue," he said.  

And there lies the truth. What shows on your electronic voting machine screen IS a cosmetic issue. Computer experts agree that there is no fundamental reason that what is on the screen agrees with the tabulation, whether due to rigging or error.  

Hundreds of software developers, warehouse workers, truck drivers, poll workers have had access to the equipment that counts our votes. What's on the screen may be purely cosmetic, completely unrelated to the vote sent to Election Central, if even one of those people was corrupt.  

After the Florida 2000 debacle, Floridians hoped to escape election meltdowns in the future. However, elections in Florida in September 2002 saw a rash of problems with ES&S voting equipment. David Hart, probably relieved that it was not Hart equipment, said at that time: "What you are seeing is complex systems fail at the polling place because they are too complex for voters. You can't have mistakes. It is just a business that doesn't forgive mistakes, period." ["Hoping for an e-vote of confidence," Austin American-Statesman", by Kirk Ladendorf, 10/27/2002]

Right, Mr. Hart.

Except that the really BIG mistake is obscure, complex, secret, nontransparent, unrecountable systems outsourced to companies who may have partisan leanings, who may have even just one corrupt employee, and whose equipment has myriad hacking vulnerabilities that could cause the wrong candidates to be put into public office.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

About the author:


Over the past three years, Pokey Anderson has interviewed dozens of computer experts, attorneys, journalists, election officials and citizens involved in election issues around the country.  Her research on some of the wireless and remote security vulnerabilities of electronic voting machines appears in "Even a Remote Chance?".  She co-anchors a wide-ranging news analysis show, The Monitor, airing Sundays on KPFT Radio in Houston, 6 pm CST. Her email address is pokey at kpft.org.

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