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Stateside: Prelude to the 2008 Elections, Part 1

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Prelude to the 2008 Elections, Part 1

This first part of a series, provides background and a summation of activity to date on what has become an extremely hot and divisive topic in the world of verified voting activists: the banning of DREs. Although this April 2007 YouTube video relates specifically to the campaign to ban DREs—Direct-Recording Electronic voting machines—in Florida, it nicely conjures up the fear being generated in the run-up to the 2008 election: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArU6cBlNysY

An August poll taken of California voters shows people are evenly divided on which vote-counting system is most reliable, and that only 44 percent of likely voters surveyed have “a great deal of confidence that their votes are being accurately counted.” http://www.field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/Rls2240.pdf If there is one thing that will suppress the vote in 2008 more than any other, it is the idea that, even if they aren’t turned away from the polls by some bureaucratic or other sleight-of-hand, voters will be cheated out of their vote by internal trickery programmed into the electronic machine recording it.

::Vote suppression::

Traditional means of suppressing the vote are detailed in a March 7, 2007 report of the House Judiciary Committee (Serial No. 110-9 on the GPOAccess website) and also available at http://judiciary.house.gov. The report, Protecting the Right to Vote: Election Deception and Irregularites in Recent Federal Elections, includes the oral testimony and/or prepared statements of Senators Obama (D-IL) and Cardin (D-MD), five Representatives (three Democrats and two Republicans), and several other witnesses from academia and non-profit groups.

From the distribution of fliers from the fictional “Milwaukee Black Voters League” telling voters they’d be arrested for turning up at the polling place, as happened in Milwaukee’s African American neighborhoods in the 2004 presidential election, to the alleged interference with voter rights cases being heard at the Department of Justice, the report’s testimony makes sorry reading in a nation that is trying to promote democracy around the world. Similar testimony at the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections hearings about voter registration and list maintenance, further lead to the impression that in the United States, “democracy” should be spelled with a “k”.

In the US, Secretaries of State are the officers at the state level whose responsibility it is to administer elections and they are elected the same as any other partisan office, such as Governor. (In some cases, the SoS does NOT have oversight over elections. It may be the Lieutenant Governor's office or a separate State Elections Board that manages elections. And in some cases, the Secretary is appointed, not elected.) Moreover, states traditionally balk at any federal interference in election matters, and they also don’t always have much money in their budgets to distribute down to the county level, where the grunt-work of elections happens. Any attempt by the federal government to mandate how states and counties will run their elections is resisted vigorously, although they welcome any money that’s forthcoming from the national coffers if there are no strings attached.

::The dreaded DRE::

Following the 2000 presidential election, with its images of Florida election officials holding punchcards up to the light to see if a chad was hanging or not, there was a call for something better. That “something better” included electronic voting machines that would directly record a person’s votes into the memory of a machine. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 provided--for the first time in US history--federal funds that would allow election jurisdictions to purchase voting equipment, and many jurisdictions opted for DREs, commonly known as touchscreens.

It also mandated that a paper record be produced that could be used for auditing the election results and that, in the event of a recount, the paper record would take precedence, but audits were not mandated—just the capacity to conduct them. And there was no requirement for the paper record to be verified by the voter, though they had to be provided the ability to review their choices on, for example, the touchscreen and make a change or correct an error:

(2) Audit capacity.--
(A) In general.--The voting system shall produce a
record with an audit capacity for such system.
(B) Manual audit capacity.--
(i) The voting system shall produce a
permanent paper record with a manual audit
capacity for such system.
(ii) The voting system shall provide the voter
with an opportunity to change the ballot or
correct any error before the permanent paper
record is produced.
(iii) The paper record produced under
subparagraph (A) shall be available as an official
record for any recount conducted with respect to
any election in which the system is used.

In 2003, Congressman Holt (D) of New Jersey introduced legislation in the House requiring paper ballots as either the input (optical scan machines) or a supplementary output of touchscreen voting machines. The legislation also required routine random audits of results in all federal elections except landslides, but both that 108th and the 109th Congress failed to move on the legislation. Then, in the 2006 election, an anomaly in the results for a Congressional election in Florida’s 13th District led to a challenge by the losing candidate, Christine Jennings (D), on the basis of there being 18,000 undervotes.

That is, 18,000 people in Sarasota County who had cast votes for Governor and all the other races on the ballot had cast no vote at all for someone to represent them in Congress. Because Sarasota County’s DREs produced no paper trail, the voters’ intent could not be audited. Was it simply a result of their not noticing the Congressional race choices at the top of the second screen or had 18,000 votes not been recorded? A Congressional Taskforce was established to investigate the matter. The Government Accountability Office’s statement regarding its preliminary investigation of that election is on their website, http://www.gao.gov/ (Search for GAO-07-1167T) GAO’s October report is GAO-08-97T.

Meanwhile, across the country in California, the newly elected Secretary of State, Debra Bowen (D), called for a thorough investigation of DREs to find out how easily results might be manipulated, and then cancelled the certification of the machines: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_vsr.htm And in Florida, activists for verified voting managed to get a law passed this May that requires all voting to be by marksense ballots (typically defined as optical scan). It also requires random post-election audits, and provides money for counties that don’t already use marksense technology. In effect, the measure bans the use of DREs in Florida, effective July 1, 2008, for anyone other than people with disabilities, and by 2012 they, too, must have some sort of marksense ballot made accessible to them.

Part 2 of this series will look at the current federal legislation and some of the controversies surrounding it.

Additional resource: An interesting illustrated history of US ballots and voting machines can be found at http://www.cs.uiowa.edu/~jones/voting/pictures/

*************

rosalea.barker@gmail.com

-- PEACE --

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