Behind the touch-screen: Who is ES&S?

This week, Minnesota announced that for the first time all votes in the upcoming election will be counted electronically. While everyone's heard about hack-prone, GOP-friendly voting machine manufacturer Diebold, what's known about Election Systems & Software, the company that's providing voting machines for 83 of Minnesota's 87 counties and the largest election management company in the world?

ES&S' "Republican roots may be even stronger than Diebold's," reported Mother Jones on the Omaha-based company. ES&S made news in 2003 when it was revealed that Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a past CEO of the company, was a part owner of its parent group at the time he won his senatorial race in Nebraska. All of the electronic votes in that race were counted using ES&S-supplied voting equipment (Hagel's campaign finance manager, Michael McCarthy, was also an owner and director at ES&S' parent company, the McCarthy Group). But of more concern than these political leanings is the actual functioning of the machines. While Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer expressed her confidence at the switch to electronic tallying, other states have reported problems with ES&S's machines, from the late delivery of paper ballots to coding errors in Arkansas primaries to outright machine failure (For more on reported e-voting errors, visit VotersUnite.)

In June, NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice released the first comprehensive study [pdf] on e-voting and categorized 120 security threats in the three most popular voting machines (including ES&S' touch-screen machine to be used in Minnesota), from vulnerability to attacks "involving the insertion of corrupt software or other software attack programs designed to take over a voting machine" to wireless components of machines that can be disrupted by "virtually any member of the public with some knowledge of software and a simple device with wireless capabilities, such as a PDA." Minnesota, to our credit, is only one of two states to ban wireless components on all voting machines.

"These machines are vulnerable to attack. That’s the bad news," says Brennan Center executive director Michael Waldman. "The good news is that we know how to reduce the risks and the solutions are within reach.” The question, however, is whether the report's recommendations will be implemented in time for a clean, fair 2006 election.

Tonight: catch a screening of By The People, a documentary that looks at gritty work of putting on an election [trailer here]. 7:30 pm at The Lagoon in Minneapolis.

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]