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Republicans Walk Out Of Federal Hearing On Voting Machines
- While Some Civil Rights Groups Support 'Paperless' Elections


by Lynn Landes 4/13/04


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 (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 (HAVA).


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, at all.  


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, costing 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 method?


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 Lynn is a former news reporter for DUTV and commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Contact info: / (215) 629-3553