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
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
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,
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, at all.
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
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
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 one basket"?
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. Lynn is a former news
reporter for http://www.dutv.org/ and commentator
for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org
/ (215) 629-3553
Posted: April 14, 2004