Your Vote Count?
February 15, 2003
What is it about this fascination with electronic voting?
Various states and municipalities think it's the greatest
thing since sliced bread. Technology triumphs, right?
Or, maybe, this trend to paperless voting is the greatest
scam ever perpetrated on the voting populace in the world's
history.... In P.T. Barnum's immortal words, "there's a sucker
born every minute." And, these days, the suckers just might
be those state legislators and local election officials who've
bought into the belief that a computer can solve their problems,
can provide the TV stations with the instantaneous results
they crave, and, glory be!, save them money in the process.
No pesky paper trail. No dogged hand-counting. No poll workers
demanding a check for that laborious hand-counting of ballots.
Huh? Wait a minute. In this profoundly technological time,
other countries still vote with paper ballots and don't get
excited if the results aren't immediately available to the
press. France, for example, still votes with paper ballots
(with some color-coding to avoid any later silliness in determining
Here, however, there's a strange belief that we have to know
the vote at the moment, and, frankly, that's a reflection
of America's increasing tendency to believe in instant gratification.
For war, for that toy in the mall, for the need to know whatever.
In the 2000 election and in prior years, that need to know,
even before the results were in, has been largely driven by
the news divisions of the large television networks and cable
associates. Everyone wants to cash in on a bit of news--such-and-such
has declared so-and-so the winner in the race for dogcatcher.
It's crazy, and that craziness has prompted all sorts of
foolishness, at the state and Federal level. Election reform,
lately, has increasingly tended to treat computerization of
voting as a panacea. Huh?
All of the people reading this use computers. Most of the
people reading this depend upon an operating system which
crashes so regularly that they wonder if that weren't the
intention of the operating system. Most people, thinking about
their experiences with computers would think that the total
computerization of voting would be just another way of frustrating
And, they would not be far wrong. There are roughly thirteen
purveyors of electronic voting equipment in this country today,
but only two dominate the industry, ES&S and Diebold. Both
of these companies have much in common. They refuse to supply
source code for their vote-counting software, claiming it
to be proprietary (source code is the original line-by-line
programming of the system). Both have had repeated failures
of their equipment on election day. The equipment of both
companies has been implicated in vote-switching in contested
elections. Both have sought to introduce voting machines which
do not provide a paper trail for individual votes.
Diebold was recently criticized for leaving secure files
on an open FTP site. ES&S is currently embroiled in other
controversy, including the fact that one of its investors
and former executives, Charles Hagel, U.S. Senator for Nebraska,
has failed to fully disclose his relationship to the company
on his FEC disclosure forms for several years, and that US&S
machines counted votes in fully two-thirds of Nebraska precincts
in elections in which Hagel was a contender. More problematic
is the issue of his Democratic opponent in those elections
being unable to contest election results due to a Nebraska
state law which prevents election officials from examining
and counting the paper ballots generated during the election,
and making a recount the sole province of the companies supplying
the very electronic voting machines responsible for purported
Huh? Still with me? How about this? ES&S, of which Chuck
Hagel was a former executive, is principally owned by the
McCarthy Group. Hagel chose, on several of his FEC disclosure
statements about his wealth, to avoid mentioning the McCarthy
Group. When pressed, his staff produced an FEC form listing
McCarthy as a "publicly accessible" fund, even though McCarthy,
like the Carlyle Group, is entirely private, and its records
of investments and its investors, is entirely private. FEC
regulations still require public officials investing in such
funds to disclose their interests. Hagel did not provide any
disclosure of his interest in ES&S, for years, and still has
not provided all disclosure of his interests in ES&S. When
the manager of the Senate Ethics committee office recently
stonewalled reporters over questionable rulings, the manager
said, approximately, "so what?" and then resigned.
Such might seem tangential and inconsequential, if it weren't
for a couple of matters which are inferential, and not legal.
ES&S originates from a company begun by Howard F. Ahmanson,
Jr. -- Sequoia. The ownership of the company passed from Ahmanson
through holding companies owned by his own Omaha World publishing
company to the McCarthy Group. Still benign? Ahmanson is profoundly
right-wing in his views. The Omaha World publishing company
is profoundly right-wing in its views. Chuck Hagel is, for
lack of a better phrase, right-wing, as well.
And, lest we fail to mention for the record, the manager
of the McCarthy Group is none other than Michael McCarthy,
who also just happens to have been campaign manager for Chuck
Hagel in his senatorial campaigns.
All of this intrigue has nothing legal to do with current
election law, because, stupidly, election managers and state
legislators around the country have made such companies as
ES&S and Diebold the sine qua non of election probity
by effectively eliminating the paper trail which could verify
any election, either by authorizing electronic voting machines
which cannot provide a paper trail, or by, in the case of
Nebraska law, making the examination of paper ballots illegal.
This is not a technical matter, by any stretch. Democracy,
as we know it, depends upon each and every vote, and given
the results of the 2000 election, particularly in Florida,
the inability to examine and evaluate every vote has immense
Various groups in the U.S. have made recommendations for
curing the ills in the country's voting process; some of those
suggestions are downright disingenuous, and others wish to
preserve electronic voting while paying lip service to the
interests of democracy.
Here are some common-sense suggestions for everyone to take
to their Secretary of State (the official generally responsible
for the vote in each state) before the next general election:
1) Demand legislation which requires any electronic voting
machine to produce a paper ballot which the voter can examine
before inserting in a ballot box.
2) Demand that all state legislation, for every election
precinct, reflect the primacy of the paper ballot--that the
paper proof of one's vote be more important than any electronic
tally, in the initial tally and in any recount.
3) Demand that any arguments of state or federal officials
that the interests of the press in announcing likely winners
be secondary to the need for the vote to be accurately counted.
4) Demand of Congress that all state election processes in
all general elections including candidates for Federal elective
office adhere to simple rules about vote-counting and that
paper ballots in general elections have primacy in any dispute
and that all Federal elections require paper ballots generated
in a way in which the individual voter can verify his vote
5) Demand that all suppliers of voting machines for all precincts
supply both source code and hardware specifications for those
machines. The complaint of corporations regarding proprietary
interests is secondary to the democratic process, which depends,
first and foremost, on the vote itself. Any company refusing
to supply all code and hardware specifications for its equipment
should be barred from supplying voting equipment.
6) Demand that representatives of any and all suppliers of
voting machines be barred from any election process in every
precinct on the day of election, regardless of problems with
7) Demand that the paper ballot and hand recounts, the tally
of which be in accordance with local law, have primacy over
electronic tabulation in all elections.
8) Demand that local legislators resist any attempt by either
federal interests or news media to dilute the voting process
in the interest of reporting speed.
Much more information on this subject is available on Bev
Harris' website, http://www.blackboxvoting.com.
The issue of electronic voting has been further complicated
by the dissolution of Voter News Service. Before any election,
many depend upon polls for estimates about how any election
may proceed, but exit polls were the only verification of
how any vote actually went. In the most recent general election
of 2002, VNS abandoned exit polls, saying that its software
was hopelessly compromised. Shortly afterwards, the large
media organizations paying the bills of VNS decided to no
longer support that service. However compromised VNS data
may have been in the past, having no verification service
at all, in combination with electronic paperless voting, encourages
the sort of abuses which make the essence of democracy--the
punpirate is a New Mexico writer who saves every scrap
of paper he can and he only has one vote to count.