Fictional Private Dick, August Riordan, Tackles Rigged Voting Machines in Bay City's Mayoral Election Following a Trail of Money, Murder and Mayhem...
By Michael Richardson on 11/22/2007, 8:05pm PT  

Guest Blogged By Michael Richardson

Sometimes facts seem like fiction and sometimes fiction seems like fact. San Francisco voting machines have now provided both fodder for a new detective novel and a novel new lawsuit.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is the author of the lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court against Election Systems & Software (ES&S) alleging fraud and breach of contract. Herrera charges that ES&S intentionally sold uncertified machines to the city and is seeking to recover $300,000 in damages.

The city lawsuit closely follows another lawsuit against ES&S earlier in the week by Secretary of State Debra Bowen. The state lawsuit seeks nearly $15 million in damages for the sale of uncertified machines in a number of counties.

Mark Coggins is the author of RUNOFF, the fourth novel in a series, about gritty private detective and professional smartass, August Riordan, who is hired to solve a rigged city election. In a special author's note, Coggins explains the characters are "complete figments of my imagination." Coggins also notes that the scenario in the book could not occur in San Francisco because of a law change in 2003.

"Residents of San Francisco will know--and perhaps now appreciate that the city does not use touch screen voting machines. They should also be aware that San Francisco is one of the few American cities to adopt ranked choice voting, which eliminates the need for runoffs. This was done after the 2003 mayoral election, but in my fictional version of the city runoffs are still possible, and, as it happens, very useful to the plot."

Riordan gets hired by the "Dragon Lady" of Chinatown to crack the case of the rigged voting machine. Before the detective is done investigating, the plot twists and turns leaving dead bodies all over the place. The first murder is nobody less than the city election director himself, killed in his basement elections division office at City Hall.

Seeking out technical assistance, the sleuth visits Professor Ballou at Stanford University, an echo of real life Stanford computer science professor, e-voting activist and expert, founder David Dill, who is thanked by the author in the book's acknowledgements.

Ballou gives Riordan the short course on voting machine security. "A touch-screen voting machine is just a computer --- a specialized kind of computer, but a computer nonetheless. Erroneous outcomes could happen for a variety of reasons, including software and hardware errors, procedural errors, security holes or hacks installed into the voting machines."

The modern day fictional noir detective, straight out the proud and gritty Sam Spade tradition, probes the fictional professor more about vote machine rigging, as the fiction ends and the facts begin. Riordan asks Ballou about ways to hack a voting machine.

"I'm afraid there are many, many different ways, but I'll try to focus on a few of the most likely. First, starting at the polling place, when the memory is removed from the computer, a corrupt pollworker could alter the results for the precinct before turning them in. It's much easier than ballot box stuffing because you only need to change one number and there is no need to steal or forge ballots."

But there is more, as the Professor's ominous instruction to Riordan is at least as terrifying in reality as it is under the guise of fiction...

"If you want one stop shopping, then the best thing to do is wait until all the votes are loaded into the central server. If you gain access to the network where the election management system runs, then results for the whole election are at your fingertips," Ballou informs him.

Riordan visits the offices of the voting machine manufacturer and another body hits the floor, as yet another new way to rig an election is slowly revealed, a software time bomb loaded into the voting machine memory before it is ever shipped out could also be exploited to alter an election.

Too unrealistic? Take a quick glance at this article --- with accompanying photos --- by BRAD BLOG's creator, Brad Friedman, during a recent late-night trip to Diebold, Inc.'s election headquarters in Allen, Texas.

Each new clue in RUNOFF yields increasing confusion as the suspect list dwindles and the body count climbs. Riordan gets pretty worn and tattered by the time the plots twists and turns to its conclusion. Unfortunately, it could be said, those of us fighting for Election Integrity in the real world, know the feeling all too well.

RUNOFF is a made up story in classic private detective styling. The book may not be everyone's idea of great literature, however, as a cautionary tale about the dangers of electronic voting machines, it is a highly readable clarion call for change that is hard to put down.


For more information and reviews see RUNOFF's main webpage or the author's book blog, Riordan's Desk.

As well, our partners at are offering signed copies of the book, while supplies last, as a premium to supporters. It's a great way to get a great read and do the cause some good at the same time!