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The electronic architecture of voter suppression

The electronic architecture of voter suppression

by Gerry Bello and Bob Fitrakis
November 4, 2012

The Ohio Secretary of State's office may be incorrectly removing thousands of legally registered voters from the voting rolls. The Columbus Free Press has obtained suspect election-related software contracts signed by the Ohio Secretary of State's office. These newly uncovered contracts, signed with Election Systems and Solutions (ES&S) [pdf] and Triad Governmental Services [pdf], may be involved with Ohio Secretary of State John Husted's office erroneously, undetectably and possibly illegally removing thousands of registered voters from the voting rolls just prior to the presidential election.

"The purpose of this Agreement is to enable each BOE (Board of Elections) to accurately process BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles) Match Files," the contract reads. Under federal law, the so-called "motor voter bill" citizens are allowed to both register to vote and update their voter registration at state BMV offices. The election-related software appears to be built to help move the BMV voter information to 87 of Ohio's 88 county boards of elections.

Instead, the software seems to be unable to match and update files in any comprehensive way.

Recently, the BMV provided 33,000 voter records that "didn't match what was in our database," according to Mathew McClellan, the spokesperson for Husted's office. The Ohio Secretary of State's office coordinates a central database with of Ohio's county BOEs.

Voters who changed their address when renewing their driver's licenses at the BMV expected that they would also have their voter registrations automatically updated. The new software, installed by ES&S and Triad in all but one county in Ohio, appears to have hindered voter registration renewals.

Both makers of this software, Triad GSI and ES &S, have been connected with previous election irregularities on behalf of the GOP in Ohio. In 2004, Triad came to the attention of the Congressional Judiciary Committee in a sworn affidavit by Sherole Eaton, a Hocking County Board of Elections worker, by providing "cheat sheets" to her just prior to the recount of the election.

The results of this electronic voter suppression are already being documents by voting right activists. The Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates (NOVA) recently began receiving calls from voters who thought they were registered, but had their requests for absentee ballots denied. NOVA Director Norman Robbins contacted Cuyahoga County officials and worked to correct information for 865 voters. These voters had registered correctly, yet the system failed to find them on the first search attempt.

Cuyahoga County's prompt action was not matched in Franklin County (Columbus). The Franklin County Board of Elections did not respond to Robbins' query for five days, and only responded after media began reporting the story. NOVA has no direct information on how many voters in other counties have been wrongly deleted, but estimates range in the tens of thousands of voters.

This new defective software, appears deficient in its ability to perform basic functions. In an interview with Robbins on November 2nd, the Free Press asked about the mechanics of what had gone wrong. A slight difference in name or street, for instance spelling "Elliott" with one "t" instead of two or entering "ninth street" instead of "ninth st." or even "9th street" will cause a registration to not be confirmed. Voters with these problems may well now be forced to cast provisional ballots, which have an usually high rate of being rejected or going uncounted.

When asked about the software's inability to perform these basic functions, Robbins explained that it will, but only if explicitly forced to. If a board of elections worker does not specifically use "wild card characters" in their searches, the searches will not default to doing so, unlike all modern search algorithms. For example, if searching for the voter "Robert Fitrakis," a wild card search would also find "Bob Fitrakis" or "Rob Fitrakis." When asked if this was always the case, Robbins informed the Free Press that it had begun recently. The contract with ES&S and Triad explains exactly when and how.

Responding to these revelations, Husted's office circulated a memo with suggestions as to how to correctly use the new inadequate database software, rather than directing his staff to make every effort to match a voter to a database record. The last of Husted's suggestions is to lookup a voter by driver's licenses number. As a result, thousands of voters who lack driver's licenses, specifically poor, elderly and disabled voters may be disenfranchised. No provision was made to look up a voter by the last 4 digits of their social security number.

The same software causing database lookup "errors" will also be used to validate the provisional ballots that many thousands of Ohio voters may be erroneously forced to cast on Election Day. Husted's office is thus implementing a bizarre Catch-22, forcing registered voters to vote provisionally because of inadequate software and then using the same inadequate software to disregard those same provisional ballots. Also, the Wall Street Journal reports that Husted's office "found" 100,000 voter registration records that were never filed.

Combined with secretly implemented voting machine patches recently exposed by the Columbus Free Press, these newly discovered contracts suggest a deliberate attempt by Ohio Secretary of State Husted to swing the election to Mitt Romney. His new database architecture, which will no doubt result in prevent registered Ohio voters from casting ballots on Election Day was only uncovered when people were turned away at the early voting site. The Secretary of State's Office refuses to comply with public records requests for lists of all contracts, equipment and vendors involved in Ohio's statewide election system. The Free Press believes that this is an apparent attempt to stonewall public information protected under Ohio's public records law.

The Free Press urges employees of the Secretary of State's office to make public all the information that is being illegally withheld by Jon Husted.


Gerry Bello is the chief researcher at the Columbus Free Press. He holds a degree in computer security from Antioch College. Bob Fitrakis is the Editor of the Free Press. He holds Ph.D. in Political Science and a J.D. from the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

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