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Whom do you trust to count your vote?

About the author
Sam Howard–Spink is a writer and doctoral student at New York University.

The 2000 presidential election was a watershed for voting systems in the United States. Never again, it was announced, would a president enter the White House under the shadow of a hanging chad. Computer technology would be the panacea.

This was a front–burner issue in early 2001, and the momentum for reform led to the passing of the Help America Vote Act (Hava) in 2002 which allocated billions of dollars in federal aid to help states update their voting systems.

Now, four years after Florida and just weeks before the next presidential election, voting machines have crept back into the public consciousness. Newspaper editorials and a handful of politicians again agree that “something must be done” about the myriad of problems in ensuring that America’s votes are counted fairly.

The problems are even fodder for comedians like David Letterman (“Bush is sending billions of dollars in aid to Florida – to replace the crooked voting machines damaged by Hurricane Charley”). But beneath the humour is a sobering reality: hyperbole aside, voting machine defects represent perhaps the most subtle and significant threat to American democracy in its history. As Siva Vaidhyanathan lays out in his introduction to this openDemocracy debate, voting technology of any kind – and in any country – only works when principles of openness and accountability are respected.

But open and frank discussion in the United States is practically impossible in today’s polarised political climate. Even the state department’s invitation of international election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) caused a backlash from those who saw it as an infringement of American sovereignty.

Forcing the issue

There might have been no awareness of the voting machine issue at all were it not for the diligent, persistent work of a genuine grassroots movement. An alliance of voting activists, computer technologists, muckraking journalists, academics, students and concerned citizens have developed a powerful decentralised network that is having a very real impact on the adoption of electronic voting machines across the US.

The most vilified machines are those that produce no paper record and allow no opportunity for manual recounts of their results. These are called direct–recording–electronic systems (DREs) – also referred to by critics as “black boxes”.

The spectrum of concerns that drive these activists runs from the purely technological to the politically conspiratorial. On one side are computer scientists who focus almost exclusively on the unreliability of the proposed systems and the risks of paperless voting machines. One example is the Verified Voting Foundation, set up by a computer science professor, David Dill; another is the Open Voting Consortium, a group of computer scientists campaigning for an open source solution to electronic voting – instead of the secret proprietary software and hardware sold by voting machine companies like Diebold, Sequoia, and Election Systems & Software (ES&S).

On the other side there are the occasionally alarmist but effective voices of groups like Black Box Voting (BBV), who accuse the manufacturers of incompetence at best, and deliberate falsification and manipulation of voting data at worst. BBV’s founder, freelance writer and public relations consultant Bev Harris, has sounded some of the loudest alarms over Diebold.

In January 2003, a simple Google search led Harris to the discovery of Diebold’s computer code for its voting machines, and it turned out to be full of serious security holes. Harris was then leaked thousands of internal memos that showed Diebold knew of the flaws in its software.

BBV’s revelations of ES&S’s financial ties with both Republican Senator Chuck Hagel (who ran in a senate race where ES&S machines were used) and Howard F. Ahmanson (a majority stakeholder in ES&S who has long been associated with the Christian Reconstruction movement which advocates Christian theocracy in America), have been enough to spark a degree of conspiratorial paranoia.

Verified Voting campaigning has inspired eleven states to introduce new laws banning paperless machines. David Dill’s group has also launched the Verified Voting Foundation Tech Watch project, involving technology professionals monitoring polling places in priority states on 2 November. On 13 July, Verified Voting and a broad coalition of other voting groups organised a Computer Ate My Vote Day. There were rallies in twenty–four cities nationwide.

Organisations like Voters Unite! have emerged to help coordinate information and action across the many local groups worried about the reliability of their voting systems. “We have everything from conspiracy theorists who say that the 2000 election was completely stolen by the machines and can cite all kinds of data, to the computer scientists who say that the problem is with glitches and bugs in software,” says the group’s John Gideon.

Equally vital to the growth of activism in this area are the legions of bloggers who have filled their political postings with news about voting–machine scandals, and student groups such as The League of Pissed Off Voters who have demonstrated outside Diebold shareholder meetings.

This combination of internet communication and direct political action has finally made legislators and the establishment media take notice of the electronic voting–machine story. The worry is that it comes too little, too late.

The perils of partisanship

The media may belatedly be subjecting voting systems to increasing scrutiny, but most politicians lack enthusiasm to tackle the issue. Despite the unprecedented, protracted post–election dispute in 2000, and the eventual de facto appointment of a president by a Supreme Court split along party affiliation, the political class remains mired in inertia on this crucial concern.

One troubling source of this inattention is that what in principle should be a straightforward bipartisan issue – one that relates to the independent operation of the country’s electoral mechanisms – often splits people along party lines. The majority of voting machinery activists are Democrats, or at least “left–leaning”. Those most opposed to the idea that the machines are untrustworthy tend to be Republicans, epitomised by Florida governor Jeb Bush and his secretary of state and chief elections officer Glenda Hood. “The political bias of our members tends to be sort of leftish – we have some strong supporters who are Republican but they tend to be few in number,” says Alan Dechert, CEO of the Open Voting Consortium. “A lot of people think this should not be a partisan issue, but that tends to be the way it plays out. Perhaps the Bush administration looks at people who are critical of the voting system as undermining George Bush’s legitimacy. We don’t see it that way. It’s an attack on stupidity, not George Bush.”

But as voting machine defects proliferate, so do party divisions. In the past year, Verified Voting’s resolution for a voter–verified paper trail has been endorsed by right–wing groups like the Eagle Forum, the Free Congress Foundation and The National Federation of Republican Women. The trend towards bipartisanship first emerged after races in 2002, where Republicans experienced losses through identified computer errors in North Carolina, Illinois and Texas.

In the 2002 general election in Scurry County, Texas, a landslide victory for two Republican commissioner candidates raised suspicions among poll workers. A “bad chip” was blamed. A hand recount revealed that Democrats had in fact prevailed by a wide margin. The election was overturned, but other cases have been less cut and dry.

The corrosion of trust

The diehard resistors to the addition of paper–trail functions to existing DRE machines are election officials. “The ones who are vocal against paper are the ones that have spent millions of taxpayers’ money, and now they have to defend why they made those choices,” says Gideon.

A revolving door between election officials and voting machine companies and their lobbyists only confirms fears about the lack of objectivity in the adoption of certain machines.

On 12 September the New York Times reported that Bill Jones, who left office as California’s secretary of state in 2003, had been hired as a Sequoia consultant, while his assistant secretary of state accepted a full–time job at the company.

Other former secretaries of state have taken on work as lobbyists for Diebold and ES&S. Indeed, voting machine companies and other vendors contribute 43% of the budget of the National Association of Secretaries of State. The tangled web of political and financial connections is so hard to unravel that it easily avoids scrutiny in commercial media. Once again it is activists and independent reporters that have brought these connections to light.

At present, no one knows quite what to expect in the November election, and that in itself does not bode well for a smooth count. Touch–screen voting machines will tally roughly 30% of the vote, and fourteen of twenty swing states will have at least one county using electronic voting for the first time. The results in some of those swing states will likely be so close that just a few hundred votes could make a crucial difference.

Will Doherty of the Verified Voting Foundation hopes for a flawless election but expresses serious concerns that there will be problems. Dechert thinks things will go relatively well with the current level of scrutiny. “We hope that we don’t get into a disputed election decided by the Supreme Court,” he says. “But we hope we would still find enough problems so that the whole thing isn’t swept under the carpet.” Others fear the possibility of an election “fix” that will leave the events of Florida 2000 in the shade.

The companies that manufacture the systems will not reveal the inner workings of the machines; they ask simply that voters trust them to do the job properly. But trust is scarce in the United States in 2004. On 2 November, it may be impossible to prove whether votes in key areas have been counted accurately and fairly, or whether any discrepancies can be attributed to machine error or human intervention. Such uncertainty could prove disastrous for both the theory and practice of democracy in America.

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