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Did Your Vote Count?
February 15, 2003
By punpirate

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 intent).

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. Huh?

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 their lives.

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 counting error.

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 consequences.

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 before submission.

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 voting machines.

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 individual vote--meaningless.

 
punpirate is a New Mexico writer who saves every scrap of paper he can and he only has one vote to count.

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