- As the battle over voting machines rages across the country,
the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met on Friday, April 9th, to examine
the Integrity, Security and Accessibility in the Nation's Readiness to
Vote". Two scientists and four representatives of civil rights organizations
were invited to brief the Commission.
But, before the panelists had a chance to share their views, three Republican
commissioners and one (notably conservative) Independent commissioner walked
out, ostensibly over a personnel dispute. But, others are not so sure.
It appears that voting technology is a topic that the Republican leadership
wants to tightly control. It is without doubt that Republicans own most
of the companies that manufacture, sell, and service voting machines. And
President Bush and the Republican Congress appear determined to control
and limit oversight of the elections industry. The Bush Administration
has stacked the Election Assistance Commission with supporters of paperless
voting technology, while the National Institute of Standards and Technology's
(NIST) got walloped with a $22 million budget cut in fiscal 2004, which
means that NIST will have to cut back substantially on its cyber security
work, as well as completely stop all work on voting technology for the
Help America Vote Act.
With no mandatory federal standards or certification in place and no funding
available, the Bush Administration and Republican-controlled Congress have
ensured that their friends in the elections industry maintain control of
voting technology and, in effect, election results.
So, at Friday's hearing, Republican members of the Commission of Civil
Rights decided that the issue of voting - the lynchpin of democracy - should
take a back seat to employee contract buyouts. Chairperson Mary Frances
Berry, a Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Law, at the University
of Pennsylvania, decided to soldier on with the hearing.
And that's when the second big disappointment of the hearing became apparent.
Some of America's largest civil rights organizations have lined up with
the Republicans on this subject. They support 'paperless' voting technology.
No fuss, no muss.
- They are: Meg Smothers, Executive Director of the League
of Women Voters of Georgia, Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights, Jim Dickson, Vice President, American Association
of People with Disabilities, and Larry Gonzalez, Director, National Association
of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Only one panelist at Friday's hearing spoke out against paperless elections,
Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, one of the nation's leading experts on computer voting
security. It's a familiar muddle for Mercuri. Last year she was the only
election official kicked out of the annual conference of the International
Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials, and Treasurers (IACREOT).
The complaint was that she wasn,t really an election official, which she
really was. So, it was perverse justice that at Friday's hearing Mercuri
found herself the only panelist invited in to defend the voter's right
to verify their own paper ballot.
Make that, 'alleged' ballot. Since a machine-processed ballot can only
produce circumstantial evidence of the voter's intent. There was no one
at the hearing to represent the point of view that only voters have the
right to vote, not machines; that only voters can produce real evidence
of their own intent, not machines; and that with voting machines there
is no effective ability to discover vote fraud, no ability to enforce the
Voting Rights Act, no real integrity or security to the voting process,
- The hearing was a replay of many meetings this writer
has attended on the subject of voting machines. The focus was on regaining
the voters, trust and confidence in voting machines, while blaming poll
workers for machine "glitches" and malfunctions, and blaming
the public for not being computer savvy.
The over-all request of the panelists was for increased education of poll
workers and the public.
Jim Dickson continued to insist that the blind could not vote without touchscreen
machines, despite the fact that the paper ballot template with an audiocassette
(a combination that is used in Rhode Island, Canada, and around the world),
is a simpler and easier solution. As I have written in previous columns,
if election officials want a fast ballot count, they can limit the size
of the voting precincts or increase the number of election officials. If
more elections officials are needed they can be drafted into public service
as is done all year around for jury duty. Likewise, voters who don't understand
English could order ballots in their own language in advance of an election.
Then there was the incredulous argument put forward that voting machines
save money, as reports filter in that some communities already need to
replace their 3-year-old touchscreen voting machines due to rampant equipment
malfunctions, costly millions more in taxpayer dollars.
Most of the panelists insisted to Commission members that paperless touchscreen
technology is the best performing voting system. But, how could they know?
And performing at what? Accuracy, accessibility, vulnerability? What about
performing under the U.S. Constitution and the law?
Incredibly, there has been no comparative study conducted of all voting
systems on any level. The lack of comprehensive studies or standards is
an issue that the General Accounting Office (GAO) complained about in an
October 2001 report. The GAO report states, "Voting machines do not
have effective standards...The standards are voluntary; states are free
to adopt them in whole, in part, or reject them entirely."
Forgetting for a moment about the Constitutional issue, even if there was
a comprehensive technical analysis of all voting systems, it is vulnerability,
- the ease at which votes can be manipulated or lost - that should trump
concerns about accuracy and accessibility. Let's just assume that picking
up the phone and calling-in our votes was the most accurate and accessible
way to vote. Can anyone reasonably argue that it would be a secure voting
Logic dictates that even if lots of people incorrectly fill out their ballots
and lots of election officials incorrectly count up the ballots, the ability
to move massive numbers of votes through technology (whether deliberately
or by accident), cannot compare to simple ballot box stuffing or similar
petty election crimes.
Even when we do look at the limited studies done on technical performance
(overvotes and undervotes), voting machines take a back seat to hand marked,
cast, and counted paper ballots. The latest Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) study actually puts hand counted paper ballots at the
top of the list for voting system performance for overvotes and undervotes.
"The difference between the best performing and worst performing technologies
is as much as 2 percent of ballots cast. Surprisingly, (hand-counted) paper
ballots"the oldest technology"show the best performance."
This is the finding of two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
political science professors, Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere and Dr. Charles
Stewart III, in a September 25, 2002 study entitled, Voting Technology
and Uncounted Votes in the United States. This study was an update of a
previous CalTech/MIT study.
Some of the panelists misrepresented the results of the California Recall
election, once again claiming that touchscreens performed the best, when
in fact, they did no such thing.
Dr. Mercuri, who has extensively studied that particular election, says,
"Essentially, what the California Recall Election showed was that
it was not the type of (voting) system (that matters), in other words,
DREs(direct recording electronics)/touchscreen, optical scan, or punchcard,
but rather the models within each of the types that could be either good
or bad. For example, the second best performing system in terms of residual
votes (undervotes or overvotes) was actually one of the punchcard systems.
But, (it was) the type that sucks the chad out rather than leaves it hanging
there. Even within particular systems, it (performance) could also be good
or bad. For example, the Diebold touchscreen, which out-performed all of
the systems in the yes/no California Recall question, was the eighth worst
in the candidates selection. This demonstrates that it is inappropriate
to characterize an entire family of systems, or even a particular system,
as good or bad just on the basis of their type. Further research has been
needed for a long time on improving the usability of voting systems, but
to date, funding has been lacking in comparison with the purchasing allocations."
Again, it doesn't take a PhD in computer science to conclude that vote
fraud or system failure in a machine-free election simply cannot compare
to the unlimited damage technology can do to the voting process. It is
really a question about how risk should be managed. Should the risk of
election fraud or system failure be spread out among millions of voters
and thousands of poll watchers, or should it be concentrated in the hands
of a few technicians - otherwise known as "putting all your eggs in
On a personal note, having been informed by the Commission staff a few
days before the hearing about the composition of the panel, that the deck
was going to be stacked against voters and in favor of machines, I called
and offered to testify. As one of the lead journalists covering this subject,
I thought my contribution would help round out the testimony. Although
my offer was declined, a member of the Commission indicated that there
might be room for me at the next meeting, on May 17th. I sure hope so.
Apparently, that's when the voting machine manufacturers will be speaking.
Fundamentally, it doesn't really matter if corporations or government officials
control voting technology. The real issue is that 99.4% of Americans aren't
really voting, machines are. But, if C-SPAN covers the hearing, perhaps
the public will finally get the picture - that voting machines aren't some
passive technology designed to 'assist' with the voting process. Instead,
voting machines constitute a grab for power, a grab for our votes. Having
voting machine manufacturers appear before the Commission could put a face
on the farce that is voting in America today. And I'd sure like to be there
to help that process along.
Lynn Landes is one of the nation's leading journalists on voting technology
and democracy issues. Readers can find her articles at <http://www.ecotalk.org/>EcoTalk.org.
Lynn is a former news reporter for <http://www.dutv.org/>DUTV and
commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Contact info:
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