Some people do crossword puzzles. I take over computers. It’s all the same shit. You figure out a couple of clues, you fill in some blanks, you put a few things together and then you figure out more clues. Eventually you get the whole thing. Except when you’re done with a crossword, all you’ve got is this piece of paper that you’re gonna throw away. When you own someone’s computer, you can do shit. When I started, all I did was stupid kiddie crap, like that time a few years ago, in 8th grade, I got Craig-the-gym-jerk’s box and made it flash “UR FUCKED ASSHOLE” in Christmas colors whenever he turned it on. Nowadays, I don’t waste my time on a machine unless it’s got something important. You could say it’s kind of an honor for me to take your computer.
I prepared for today for over a month. My old man’s pretty happy with the results. While we were getting ready to go on stage for his victory speech, he said “Well, Robbie! We won! 56 percent of the vote! What do you think of that? So much for those polls that said 52 percent, hey?”
I just said, “Yes, sir. Congratulations! Will Garner for Congress!” and we shook hands, but I was thinking the whole time how something must have gone wrong, besides those machines that crashed after lunch, because I’d only programmed them to give him about 54 percent.
“Frank Harper was a strong opponent,” he said. “But the way the voters stuck by me … well … it’s gratifying.” The sap thinks they love him, and it’s true, he’s not bad compared to those other bastards, but without me looking out for him, he couldn’t get elected kindergarten class president.
I wasn’t planning to help the old man until I heard about Harper’s visit to the Green Fields Retirement Community, when I visited Grammy Garner for her birthday last September.
Usually when I visit her, she’s all happy and tells me a couple of dirty jokes. This time she was pissed as hell when I came in. She wouldn’t even talk at first, but sat glaring at me like I’d stolen her credit card. Which I would never do to Grammy Garner. She’d figure out it was me and make me pay for it.
Finally she said, “That son of a bitch Harper was just here, trying to get votes out of the old folks!”
I was relieved it wasn’t about me. “So what, Grammy? That’s what these assholes do.”
“Don’t take that patronizing tone with me, Robbie Garner! I thought you had a couple of brains. If it was your garden variety campaigning would I be talking about it?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “What happened?”
“Well, after he finished displaying his $50,000 dental work,” and she bared her dentures, “he sent out his army of young apes to ‘help’ us old geezers fill in absentee ballots. Show us the right check box.” She stomped her cane on the floor in disgust. I felt the same. It was like someone had trashed my hard disk. My old man would never pull a stunt like that! Even if he understood it. Grammy snorted at my expression. “You get Alzheimer’s from gray hair! That’s what they think. Dirty bums!”
“Trolls!” I agreed.
“Those oafs took the ballots with them, or I’d have helped the old coots find the right check box, myself.” She sighed. “Robbie, I wish it was you running instead of that poor babe in the woods, your father. You’d know how to handle those skunks. Who’s going to help him? That spineless campaign manager? Your delightfully soused mother?” She shook her head.
Back in March I’d read about some scientists who got hold of a General Informatics GI-74 voting machine, similar to what this county uses, and without knowing anything about the code figured out in about a week how to reprogram it to play chess. I thought chess was a dumb choice and I could do something better, but I didn’t bother, because I was busy then on a job to change a kid’s 10th grade Chemistry grade from 87 to 93 in the school database. (In that range, I charge $100 a point — you need to use some brains to change things in a way that people won’t figure it out.)
After my visit to Grammy, I thought about those Vote-a-Pawn machines. I could get a voting booth to experiment on like those scientists did, but it would be a pain to store it without attracting attention. I worked at GI last summer on one of those bullshit “Summer Opportunities for Students” and I could have gotten some information from people I know there, but they might remember my questions later if anything happened. So I searched the Net, and in about 15 minutes I found leaked source code for the GI-74 on three different forums. The old man had insisted that the county upgrade to the newer GI-84 model last January, but I was pretty sure its programs would work about the same. I guess I wasn’t the only one interested in this approach because I saw an ad “$300/hr (cash) for GI-84 customization programmer. Email QX38J12@qx38j12.com.”
It took me about a day to write some code that would look at votes, and if my dad had less than 54 percemt, it would switch enough of them to make it 54 percent. Of course, if 90 percent voted for him, it wouldn’t need to switch anything and he’d get 90 percent. Yeah, right! Polls were saying 52 percent with a 5 percent margin of error, so I figured I’d let him beat expectations without raising questions.
Programming’s the easy part. Getting code onto a machine you want to own is always the trick, but that’s just another piece of the puzzle. It’s about research and strategy.
I found that every voting booth with the old man’s name would pick up its code and its ballot from a server stored down at the Frederick Wyman County Building. Now everybody knows me at Wyman. Back when the old man was a Freeholder (until last election), he made me and the little squirt Penny go there all the time, like on their half-assed Community Days. He said it made him look more human. I told him any chimp knows how to get kids, but we had to go anyway, in our church clothes. The old lady too, if she wasn’t sloshed. So I figured I might get some help with loading my code onto the server from the good people who work there.
Soon as I walked in, old lady Smith (she runs the place) dropped everything and came waddling over with this big grin. “Robbie! How are you, sweetheart? You got so tall!” she croaked. “What brings you here? You didn’t come to talk to a bunch of old ladies?”
“Well, ma’am, I’m afraid I’m here on business, today, though you know I’d rather talk.”
She straightened up, and nodded. “What do you need, Robbie?”
“My father — Congressman Garner, I mean — wants me to check on the new voting machines. To make sure they’re being stored securely.” The old cow smiled like she knew exactly what I was talking about. “Of course!” she said. She pointed through the glass window of the office, to a door across the hallway. “We keep an eye on them. Nobody can get in there without us seeing them.”
That would be a pain in the ass. “Oh, that’s fine, Mrs. Smith!” I said. “The congressman will appreciate your vigilance!” She smirked. “May I take a look?”
The door wasn’t locked, and I slipped into a huge storeroom lit with a red emergency light. In the darkness, I walked around rows of voting booths, until I found the server. Its cabinet was locked, but even in that dim light, I could tell I’d be able to pick that lock in under a minute. Near the door, I saw why the room was unlocked. They kept all the important shit together in there –– voting machines, cookies, potato chips.
Back in the office I said, “Everything’s perfect, Mrs. Smith.” And for me it was. I knew those snacks would never be hard to get at.
I went back about two weeks ago at lunchtime, when I knew they’d all be in the break room or reading their horoscopes. I got onto the server, using the default password, and downloaded my program. Once, while I was setting up the machine, the door opened and someone came in. I hadn’t turned on the lights and luckily the server was at the opposite end of the room, its screen facing away from the door. I ducked down behind it, and heard a couple of bags of chips rattling and the door closing again. When my heart stopped banging, I finished the configuration, and turned on a couple of the voting booths to check that my program worked OK. In a little over half an hour I was done. The old bats never saw me.
After that, the hard part was the waiting game. I kept looking at the code, running it over in my head while I brushed my teeth or did my homework, worrying if it was just right. Last night I was so freaked about whether everything would work like it was supposed to, I couldn’t sleep.
I convinced the old man to let me skip school today so I could “observe the wheels of democracy” at his campaign headquarters. If my program barfed, I had to know about it immediately. When I heard about the crashes after lunch, I ran home to check the programs (again) to see if it was a fuck-up in my code. Which, of course, it wasn’t. But within half an hour, I found three bugs by those lamers at GI, including one that could make a booth crash in the middle of an hourly check of its power backup battery. I wanted to smash something. Because those machines broke down, they’d be investigated, and my code would be found, all because of their incompetence. It was so unfair!
But nothing else much happened during the day. The exit polls were good, and by evening everyone was much more interested in the victory party than four crashed booths.
After the old man gave his speech, a suit I recognized from the halls of GI came over and shook hands with him. “Congratulations, Will! An impressive win!”
Grammy Garner popped out of nowhere and said, “No thanks to your voting machines, Charlie Steele!” and she shook her cane in his face.
Charlie looked nervous for a second, then laughed like it was the best joke he ever heard. “I see you’ve heard about our mishaps, Mrs. Garner. Well, it’s only natural you’d worry about the integrity of this election.” He turned to the old man and said, “Will, don’t you fret. We’ve got a team of experts looking into what happened to those booths. They’ve found some bugs.” I couldn’t help it, but I started shaking a little. Nobody noticed, except Grammy, who looked at me funny, but then went back to looking funny at Charlie.
The old man laughed his head off. “You technologists and your bugs! You should hire my Robbie, here. He could show your people a thing or two!” and he slapped my back, which kind of creeped me out, because it was like he knew what I’d done for him.
Charlie said, “Oh, are you interested in computers, young man?”
“I know a little, sir. They’re fascinating machines.”
“They certainly are. Here, take my card. You call me tomorrow. We’ll see if we can’t put your interest to good use.” Then he turned back to the old man and said, “We’ll get those machines sorted out, Will.”
“Well, Charlie, you’ll have to explain it all to the state Elections Commissioner. I’m afraid I don’t understand any of that stuff.” That was my old man, all right. He doesn’t get shit about computers, no matter how much GI ass he kisses for fundraising.
Charlie said, “Yes, I’ve already called Jerry and told him we’ve found a problem with our batteries. Not to worry. A few other booths across the state had the same problem. Most in your county, though. Who knows why? We’ll issue an investigation report. With your margin of victory it won’t make a difference.”
I’m glad nothing got fucked up and the old man won tonight. Harper is such a dick. His people have been spreading stories that my old lady is a lush. If they told stories like that about me, I’d make sure everybody knew what kind of porn they like to look at. Harper likes them young. Like about my little sister Penny’s age. I looked at his hard drive.
Tomorrow I think I’ll E-mail QX38J12. Maybe I’ll call Charlie, too. Let’s see who’ll give me the sweeter deal.
Cohen, a Belle Mead resident, is a senior IT business analyst and CISSP. Her writing, she says, “is much improved by the loving and thoughtful feedback provided by her writing group and by the Sharpening the Quill Writer’s Workshop run by Lauren B. Davis.”
She adds that “long after most of this story was completed, Sharri Bockheim Steen brought to my attention the story of a New Jersey father-son political hacking scheme (see “New Jersey Mayor Hacked Opponents’ Web Site, U.S. Charges,” New York Times, May 24, 2012).
Editor’s note: See Steen’s story about a different kind of vote on page 34 of this issue.