Hacking Democracy
Docurama // Unrated // $26.95 // March 27, 2007
Review by Jeffrey Robinson | posted March 26, 2007
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The Documentary

Hacking Democracy is a HBO documentary about a pressing and serious issue, e-voting (electronic voting). For those unfamiliar with the term, e-voting is a method used in elections to digitally count votes. Government elections at all levels (local, state, federal) across the nation use some means of e-voting. However, like most digital systems, they are imperfect. Hacking Democracy spends 82 minutes showing how imperfect these systems can be... casting doubt on the affairs of government elections as the process appears too easy to tamper with. The only problem is that the message can be summed up in one line: computer systems can be hacked and misused. The documentary starts off strong, but quickly falls into a repetitive message that doesn't really say much.

Hacking Democracy follows Bev Harris, a Seattle native who became aware there was a problem with e-voting methods when she discovered that a U.S. senator held ownership in the company that built the machines that counted his votes. Following, Bev started to ask questions and quickly learned that the e-voting machines in everyday use were not quite as secure as we would hope.

The documentary begins with Bev telling her story and following her in a variety of investigations. Some of the interesting segments come from the early half of the film, which include Bev facing the corporate types who have been denying their product's imperfection. For instance, the Diebold Corporation accidentally left the source code for the tabulation software on a public shared Internet site. Bev, during her initial fact finding, found the source code and worked with computer researchers to prove that the Diebold software was poorly written and insecure.

In the following portions, Bev starts a not-for-profit group called Black Box Voting and joins others concerned with e-voting. They travel around the country trying to find answers. While looking, Bev and gang reveal that there are a lot of elections being run improperly (bad administration, not following the rules, poor auditing and oversight, etc.), how easy it can be to modify e-voting machines, and voters who doubt the accuracy of the process and feel cheated.

What this documentary does well is present the issue. The current state of e-voting methods is plagued with problems, and this documentary does a fine job introducing that notion. And it does it at a high level that should be easy for anyone to follow. On the other side, the detail is not very technical or complex. The basic message comes out that e-voting machines are imperfect, computer systems can be hacked, and some elections might be fixed. I took real issue with this documentary because of it. I think that the topic is interesting and could have been a lot more if looked at from other angles.

In addition, Bev's crusade, while noble, comes off as overzealous. She appears in repeated situations, yelling and screaming (figuratively speaking) at people, pissed as hell about how the election officials are handling the situation, corporate types who claim their systems are fine, and so on. She has good reason, but the repeated overenthusiastic behavior felt more annoying than anything.

Overall, Hacking Democracy is a decent documentary that tackles a serious issue. The film could have been more powerful if the presentation had been slightly different and a better argument had been made. As it stands, the documentary follows Bev Harris and provides a fairly single-sided presentation about the problems of e-voting. The reoccurring message is that e-voting machines can be hacked and the future of democracy might be comprised. They do not go into other security controls like physical and personnel security that might be able to offset security flaws in the e-voting machines.


The video is given in widescreen letterbox color format. The quality is fairly good for a documentary and has the typical roughness.

The audio is given in English 2.0 Dolby digital stereo sound. The sound quality is decent with dialogue that is audible throughout, with a few exceptions of hard to hear dialogue.

For extras, there are deleted scenes (33 minutes), the original trailer, filmmaker biographies, about Docurama, and other Docurama trailers for Bob Dylan Dont Look Back, The Weather Underground, Andy Goldsworthy Rivers and Tides, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

Final Thoughts:
Hacking Democracy is a documentary about the problematic issues dealing with e-voting machines. It follows Bev Harris as she journeys for the truth. The message learned is that computer systems can be hacked and without proper controls, oversight, and auditing, they are susceptible to attacks. The e-voting paradigm in its current state needs more public attention. Overall, while this documentary tells an important tale, the presentation has its limits and after forty or so minutes, it feels like a broken record saying the say thing over and over again. In the end, it makes for a decent watch, but less repetition would have been nicer.

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