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Hacking Democracy

Docurama // 2006 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 3rd, 2007

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Dan Mancini wants you to know that he's a grandmother. Well, not really, but you should still accept everything he says as the gospel truth.

Editor's Note

Our review of Hacking Democracy, published August 30th, 2007, is also available.

The Charge

How do you vote them out if the fix is in?

The Case

Produced by HBO and directed by Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels, Hacking Democracy is the story of Bev Harris's crusade against touch screen and optical scan voting machines—particularly those manufactured and sold by Diebold Election Systems. Harris turned activist and launching BlackBoxVoting.org in 2003 after she pulled Diebold's voting software off of one of the company's public ftp sites (where it had been saved accidentally), and had it analyzed by a computer scientist who discovered serious flaws in the code that would allow tampering with vote totals. At least that's how I think she turned activist. That's what Hacking Democracy implies, though it offers little biographical information about Harris other than that she's from Seattle and is a grandmother—because who are you going to trust: the U.S. government or Grandma Harris?

As a documentary exposé, Hacking Democracy is a major disappointment. Its lazy investigative reporting kicks the legs out from under a seriously disturbing issue—election fraud. The flick essentially mixes (often disturbing) facts with wild speculation, then throws it all up onscreen as if to see what might stick. Music and voice-over narration so ominous they border on parody only enhance the sense that Ardizzone, Michaels, and Harris are in search of an audience unwilling or unable to apply rational thought to much of what's in the film. Take for instance a scene in which we watch Harris dumpster dive at Diebold. She discovers some accounting papers with a line item showing that a Republican political committee owed Diebold $1,200. We're then told that Diebold's CEO publicly supported George W. Bush in the 2004 election. And? Well, and nothing. Harris doesn't know what any of it means. But that doesn't stop Ardizzone and Michaels from tossing the scene into the final cut, anyway.

The best part of the movie is when we watch the infamous "Hursti Hack." In an attempt to explain a -16,022 vote total for Al Gore in Volusia County, Florida's 216th precinct in the 2000 election, Finnish computer programmer Harri Hursti successfully alters vote totals by hacking a Diebold machine's memory card, without ever touching the machine itself or the vote tabulating software. It's pretty powerful stuff that gets to the heart of the voting machines' vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, the sequence is undermined by more baseless speculation. Assertions are made that the negative total for Gore could only have happened by intentional manipulation of the voting apparati. Maybe, maybe not. None of Ardizzone's or Michaels' subjects ever explain why some other non-nefarious explanation is impossible. They just insist it is with the fervor of the religiously devout. Moreover, the phantom Republican hacker must've been a real dolt because Hursti shows us how to hack the memory card in such a way that the vote totals don't exceed the total number of voters who use that particular machine. A -16,022 total for a candidate is the sort of thing that raises red flags among election officials (it did), especially when the precinct in question has fewer than 600 registered voters. Don't get me wrong, Gore's Volusia County vote total freaks me out, but the collection of horrifying facts (at least as presented in Hacking Democracy) doesn't point to a conspiracy unless the conspirators were simultaneously devilishly brilliant and dumber than a bag of hammers.

To be fair to Ardizzone and Michaels, they may have been impossibly hamstrung by their subject's singular focus on touch screen and optical scan machines. Harris' obsession with particular voting systems steals thunder from the broader and more interesting subject of election fraud. The question of how we balance a secret ballot system against a need for election accountability and audit trails is far more interesting than speculation about Diebold chicanery. Hacking Democracy isn't even clear on what it is that Harris wants, other than more Diebold transparency (that would be good) and open source voting software. Given that Harris herself asserts that both major political parties in the U.S. have a vested interest in election fraud, I'm less than clear on how open source software alone solves the problem (though it does, at least, seem like a move in the right direction).

The documentary also left me wondering whether touch screen and optical scan machines were really more vulnerable to election fraud than earlier system, or if they merely present a new set of vulnerabilities. In my almost 20 years of voting, I've used two types of machines: punch card and, more recently, touch screen. I can't say that Hacking Democracy inspired my confidence in the touch screen systems, but it didn't convince me they're worse than the punch card systems. Harris asserts that the problem with touch screen and optical scan machines is that we don't know for sure who we've voted for. But did we really know who we voted for with the punch card systems? If I poke a hole in a slot next to the name of my candidate of choice, how am I to know the tabulating machine actually recorded my vote accurately? You see, the issue isn't one of technology as Harris makes out (though it's perfectly reasonable to ask which machines are most likely to produce the best and most accurate election results—in fact, it's our duty as citizens to ask such questions), but one of human nature. Whatever voting system we use, enterprising scumbags of one stripe or another will find ways to rig results.

Hacking Democracy combines medium-grade video footage shot by Ardizzone and Michaels with consumer-grade material shot by Harris. The non-anamorphic transfer on Docurama's DVD is flat and dull, though mostly true to its source (anamorphic enhancement would likely have improved clarity a bit). Audio is a straight-forward stereo presentation that does justice to the film's simple soundtrack.

Extras include four deleted scenes that run 33 minutes total: "'The Inland Empire,'" "Atlanta, GA Primary," "Glades, FL," and "Volusia County, FL." There is also a trailer for the film, and text-based biographies for Ardizzone and Michaels.

If Harris' crusade results in better, less vulnerable voting machines, that's great. I'm afraid that Hacking Democracy's dearth of investigative rigor decreases the chances it will. Bev Harris gets an A for her earnestness and passion, but Ardizzone and Michaels get a D for making a film that goes out of its way to avoid the reasoned ground between its subject's noble aspirations and blind devotion to conspiratorial dogma.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 65

Perp Profile

Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Trailer
• Filmmaker Biographies


• IMDb
• Official Site
• BlackBoxVoting.org

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