Stand Up, Be Counted: Grassroots Docs Warn of Electronic Voting

Jonny Leahan October 27, 2006

With the midterm elections less than two weeks away, a crop of documentaries are collectively trying to get a message across that has largely been passed over by the mainstream media — your vote might not actually be counted. Or it could be counted several times over, depending on which county you’re registered in, and which type of electronic machine you’ll be using to cast that vote. The notion that this is the rhetoric of crackpot bloggers and leftist conspiracy theorists is fading fast, as citizens and politicians in both parties have begun to realize the sobering truth: a hacker of average skill can now easily tamper with certain election results, and in many cases there would be no way to detect it — and no paper trail to conduct a recount if an outcome was deemed suspect.

Most of these films are grassroots efforts that are self-distributed or offered for sale online, or both, as in the case of Dorothy Fadiman’s "Stealing America, Vote by Vote", a sobering account of the 2004 election that focuses mainly on the significant irregularities in the Ohio vote count, largely due to issues attributed to electronic voting machines. In one example, the film explains that untold thousands of people saw their votes switch before their eyes on touch screen systems, most claiming that they pressed "Kerry" and they saw it jump to "Bush" on the screen. In fact, over 90 percent of complaints of "vote switching," which was reported in at least 13 states, were claims that votes for Kerry were switched to Bush.

[Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in indieWIRE Oct. 26, 2006]

"This film gives people permission to say out loud what we’ve all known for some time, that our elections are being stolen," says Pat Leahan, Director of the Las Vegas, New Mexico Peace and Justice Center, and one of the film’s subjects. "In that regard the movie is oddly freeing, but it also gives the viewer a serious dose of reality. We’ve done a number of advance screenings here in New Mexico, and people come away from the film angry, educated, and motivated to take action." Although the film is still a work-in-progress, the advance screenings are taking place throughout October and November, in order to educate people about the situation, and stimulate discussion—and ultimately action.

In her homestate of New Mexico, Leahan and other activists pressured the governor to introduce legislation that effectively ended computerized voting, which the legislature passed. "I believe this film will motivate people to monitor the November 2006 election more closely than ever," says Leahan. "Perhaps it will motivate people to file official complaints if they find themselves illegally purged from the voting rolls or disenfranchised in some other way. I hope it will motivate candidates to stand up and demand a recount if they lose by a close margin. I hope it will motivate people to take to the streets if we have another stolen election." (For more information or to obtain the DVD, please visit

This month, IFC Films released Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s "So Goes the Nation," strategically timed to coincide with the impending mid-term elections. Also focused largely on Ohio in 2004, the film examines the messy US electoral process, following ordinary folks as they face what should be a simple act—voting—and the challenges, court appeals and lawsuits that sometimes follow. The documentary exposes the inner workings of a political campaign, incorporating interviews with strategists from the left and the right, ultimately making the case that no matter what your affiliation, the system is broken.

Of course it’s not just theaters that are showing these types of documentaries—HBO gets into the act with Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels’ "Hacking Democracy," which premieres on the station Thursday, November 2, at 9pm. The film warns of the extreme vulnerability of voting machines, which currently count approximately 80% of America’s votes in county, state and federal elections. The story began when Seattle grandmother Bev Harris questioned her county officials about why they had purchased electronic touch screen voting systems, but she could never get a straight answer. She then decided to research the issue herself, and discovered hundreds of incidents of mishandled voting information related to electronic machines.

The biggest culprit seemed to be the Diebold Corporation, which counted more than 40 percent of the presidential votes nationwide in 2000, and whose machines have no paper trail and no way to execute a viable recount should there be a legal challenge or problem of any kind. When Harris went to their website, she found a section full of internal documents that had accidentally been left unsecured for anyone to download—documents which included software information that she took to several experts in the field. Every one of them was shocked at how easily the Diebold system could be hacked, and several even demonstrated how a single person could easily rig an entire election and remain undetected.

Another documentary which explores the flawed election system, highlighting troubles with electronic voting in particular, is Emmy-winner David Earnhardt’s "Eternal Vigilance: The Fight to Save Our Election System," which is being screened in homes throughout the country by both organized groups and informal alliances, largely through online DVD sales. (Check out for more info.) The film also touches on the disenfranchisement of African-American voters in several counties throughout the country, providing several disturbing examples.

That theme is further fleshed out in Ian Inaba’s recent documentary "American Blackout," which exposes the disfranchisement of black voters in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, triggering some strong reactions from viewers on both sides of the aisle. Also screening throughout October and November around the country, mostly at events hosted by individual activist groups, the film follows the story of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who aggressively investigated election debacles, then found herself in the middle of one when she publicly questioned the Bush administration about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "American Blackout", which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance this year, is also available on DVD at

Whatever your party affiliation, what all of these documentaries make clear is that there is cause for serious concern when it comes to our election system, and things may get worse before they get better. Whether or not films like these will make a difference remains to be seen, but those involved are certainly hopeful. "It was the grassroots community that started the election integrity movement," says Leahan, "and it will be the grassroots communities across the country that will finally get our votes out of the hands of the corporations and back into the hands of the people."

[EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the people interviewed for this article, Pat Leahan, is related to the writer.]