Surely You’re Joking, Professor Altschuler!

Recently I attended a meeting of the Cornell Club of Hartford as a guest of a member. She had invited me and several other voting advocates because the speaker was Cornell Professor of American Studies, Glenn C. Altschuler. He is an expert on election history.

Professor Altschuler was an entertaining speaker, spiking the talk with jokes, and bantering with some members of the audience. He is obviously a popular faculty member. I found the whole talk quite interesting.

His basic thesis is that elections in the U.S. are primarily decided by three factors Timing, Tactics and Turnout. He analysed the 2008 presidential election based on that frame, pointing out similar aspects of past elections. Not being a history expert, I cannot comment on his theory’s relation to other alternative theories.

There is an old joke about the sandwich store with a sign that read “We have an agreement with the Bank, they don’t make sandwiches and we don’t cash checks.” I propose an agreement between computer experts and political historians: “We won’t attempt to clarify political history and you won’t certify voting machines.”

I asked a very simple question, very quickly, simply, honestly and innocently. (You were not there. You will have to trust me on this.) I asked approximately: “I would add another T, Tinkering. Could you tell me why politicians like John Kerry and the loser in our 2nd District Congressional race with a margin of 91 votes throw in the towel so quickly”

He then proceeded to characterize me as a conspiracy theorist, said that I only believed the machines were unsafe because of Mr. Diebold’s unfortunate statement (He indicated could not recall his name, which is Walden O’Dell.). Said there was no evidence of computer fraud. And that it was hard to do. It would take too many people. I would have loved an opportunity to debate him, I saw that as inapproprite, and did not continue. I did not want to offend anyone, especially since I was a guest in front of an admired, legendary professor.

He went on to state that Bush had stolen the election fair and square in Ohio as it has always been done. (My contention would be then that his theory of the three T’s is, at best, incomplete as an explanation of who won in the past and why.)

This is an instructive example of what I have recently read in a Brennan Center for Justice report – that registrars and many others think its very hard to hack or compromise computers since they do not understand them and find computers mysterious. Similarly, often the rest of us don’t appreciate how vulnerable paper has proven to be.

I did not get tasered, although another questioner joked about that later as another “T”. It does seem that raising the subject of Kerry throwing in the towel is beginning to be a touchy subject. There are differences between what happened at the University of Florida and what happened to me.

As I left, I shook hands with Professor Altschuler and stated approximately “I disagree with almost everything you said to me: I do not know if there is an conspiracy; A conspiracy is not required; I believe there is clear evidence of fraud; And it does not take many people.”

He laughed it off with approximately “If you disagree with everything I’ve said then I’ve done my job”. To which I hope the title of this post applies: Surely You’re Joking, Professor Altschuler!

For the record let me respond further:

I do not believe the machines were unsafe because of Walden O’Dell’s statement. I agree with Mr. O’Dell and Professor Altschuler that it was a dumb statement. Yet, it is an indication of Mr. O’Dell’s thinking, may provide insight into the culture within Diebold, and may itself have changed that culture. It also makes a catchy quote to gain the reader’s attention early in an article on the dangers of electronic voting.

There is evidence of computer fraud. Plenty. (Or more precisely, counting irregularities where computers are involved, where the numbers reported from computers are not credible, but are accepted). Not necessarily enough evidence to determine and prosecute the culprits. What there is little evidence of is credible investigations.

It is not hard to do hack or compromise the AccuVote-OS. It is relatively easy for computer professionals and easier for enthusiastic hackers.

It does not take many people. The Brennan Center for Justice in “The Machinery of Democracy” chose computer fraud by insiders as the most dangerous threat out of some 190 they analysed because a) it was so easy for knowledgeable insiders with access to the memory cards and (b) it took very few people for large statewide elections, as few as three. The Carter-Baker commission stated it this way:

“The greater threat to most systems comes not from external hackers, but from insiders… Software can be modified maliciously before being installed into individual voting machines. There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry”

My last word (for now):

I can understand and accept an American Studies expert being baffled by computers and buffaloed by the common spin attached to voting activists. However, I find it sad to realize that he publicly condones the history of voting fraud, and the voting fraud perpetrated in Ohio to African-Americans, college students, and ultimately to all of us.

(A disclaimer: I have only good feelings toward Cornell University. During my college days there was an intense hockey rivalry between everyone associated with my alma-mater, Clarkson University, and those with interest in hockey at Cornell. However, since Clarkson usually won, I have never had bad feelings. Also, I was accepted into Cornell’s Ph.D. program in Computer Science, and often wonder how my life would be different if I had accepted their offer. Some of my friends, some who are renowned Computer Scientists, and others I admire from afar are associated with Cornell.)

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