Last Friday (February 10, 2017), a message appeared on the website of Bulgaria’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC), announcing Decision № 4272-NS which determines the technical requirements for the hardware and the software of the system for the electronic voting machine in the parliamentary elections on March 26, 2017.
However, the specifications are secret and were not published!
Later in the evening, another decision to launch a public procurement procedure for providing/leasing 12,500 voting machines was also published. The CEC estimates that the rent for each device will cost from 1,000 to 1,200 levs without VAT.
Therefore, the question why the technical requirements for the machines are not public becomes a 15 million-levs-question, without VAT.
This is a modest amount, compared to the 128 million US dollars allocated at the eleventh hour from the Venezuelan budget for machine voting in the referendum “for or against Chavez remaining president” in 2004. However, the parallel is valid, even more so because the same company might turn out to be the winning bidder in the Bulgarian tender.
According to information obtained by Bivol, the requirements in the secret annex suspiciously match device SAES-3377 of the company Smartmatic. The CEC previously rented voting machines from the same company for the experimental machine voting in 2014. Another 500 machines were leased from Smartmatic for the formal machine voting in the presidential election last year. Another source, however, claims that efforts were made not to favor the same company again … if it is not the only candidate.
Meanwhile, Capital daily published information that the CEC had discussed replacing the machines with touchscreen laptops and printers. A large computer company had even begun to explore the supply and transport of 13,000 laptops from China. However, any provider, including Smartmatic, will be facing logistical problems as the deadlines are extremely tight.
Who is the provider of the voting machines?
Smartmatic is one of the leaders in the business of machine and electronic voting. However, the company’s glory is contradictory. Founded by Venezuelans, it was originally registered in Delaware in the United States, and subsequently re-registered in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. According to secret cables by US diplomats in Caracas, leaked through Wikileaks, its owners are wealthy Venezuelans linked to the Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez and hidden behind a web of offshore companies.
In 2014, Smartmatic became part of the SGO. Lord Mark Malloch Brown, who is close to George Soros and is a board member of “Open Society”, became representative of Smartmatic. This caused speculation that the billionaire has bought the company but Smartmatic categorically denied any involvement of Soros in its capital.
Smartmatic has also delivered machines for elections in the United States, where, in 2006, it was investigated for connections with the Venezuelan government, according to the New York Times. This happened after Smartmatic acquired in 2005 the US company Sequoia Voting Systems, supplying voting machines in 17 US states and Washington DC. Ultimately, Smartmatic sold its shares in Sequoia, but doubts that its licensed software is still used in American elections remain.
It is remarkable that from the numerous elections, in which the company has participated, only in Venezuela there were no complaints about problems with the voting machines. They are also the most successful elections in financial terms for Smartmatic – 128 million US dollars for the 2004 referendum in which Venezuelans had to decide whether Hugo Chavez should remain President. The contract was speedily awarded by the pro-presidential Venezuelan electoral commission. Chavez won the referendum. The opposition then blamed Smartmatic for its loss over detected dubious two-way communication with a central server before printing the records.
The Smartmatic voting machines are distributed in Bulgaria by the company “Ciela Norma”. It is associated with lawyer Ivan Todorov, who, according to Momchil Mondeshki in the Yaneva Gate recordings, “often visits Delyan” and has arranged arbitration proceedings in favor of the infamous oligarch. Todorov, himself, categorically denied any connection with Delyan Peevski.
Textbook machine performance
For the Bulgarian elections, an online connection of voting machines with a central server that records the cast machine votes is not provided. All devices are offline. At least the “Venezuelan” option for manipulations is eliminated.
Instead of sending sensitive information over the Internet, the voting devices will simply print at the end of Election Day a protocol with the total number of votes and possibly their distribution by parties.
A significant problem is that the Smartmatic machines are like “black box” and nobody in Bulgaria knows how they work. In previous elections, the CEC has given one day to the expert committee to examine one of the machines before sending all of them to the voting polls.
This is most likely to happen now as well. One out of 12,500 machines will be checked. Since the software is owned by the company and is not an open source, this inspection is purely pro forma.
The discussed option of using laptops and printers is even riskier since there will be no physical possibility to check whether the Chinese laptops meet the security criteria. It is enough to remember the Chinese smart irons that were secretly connecting to the Internet and sending out spam and viruses.
But if you are concerned that the equipment can be manipulated by some secret codes to produce the required results, do not worry. In the Bulgarian conditions, there is even no need for hackers. Things are much simpler.
For the presidential election, the CEC distributed a number of voting machines for training. These devices print ballots and protocols with results that are visually identical to the ones produced by the machines used in the real vote, but the latter ballots and protocols are not protected with a micro-code.
In this situation, it would not be rocket science to click the needed votes on the training machines and replace the protocols. One will only need to know how many people have voted with machines in a certain voting poll.
Such manipulation can be limited if the results protocol of each voting machine is printed with an audit trail with the time of submission of each vote. This extra feature was not provided for the presidential elections and it is unclear whether it is included in the secret technical requirements of the CEC.
In the last elections, more than 200,000 people cast their ballot on a voting machine, and it is expected that in the elections in March they will reach one million. This raises serious concerns about the safety of the machine vote. At the very least, we need an independent external audit of the voting devices, as already requested by the new political party “Yes, Bulgaria”. However, the mystery surrounding the CEC’s technical annex is a bad sign that things will go in the opposite direction.
This post is also available in: Bulgarian