William Rivers Pitt: Andy's Election
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 27 October 2006
My bar has been running this neat gimmick for several years now. If you drink every kind of beer they have in the place - about 130 labels when you combine the bottles, the taps and the unutterably wretched stuff they keep buried under the dumpster out back - your reward is a 25-ounce mug that can be filled from the taps for the regular pint price. Moreover, you get to emboss your mug with the name of your favorite author. The only caveat: the author has to be dead.
I got my own mug approximately ten thousand years ago, and the author I chose was H.L. Mencken. It seemed a good choice, as it was Mencken who once said, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Given the times, I could not imagine a more accurate statement.
But then, in the summer of 2005, my friend Andy Stephenson passed away due to pancreatic cancer. Andy had devoted years of his life to sounding an alarm over the unbelievable flaws in the new electronic voting machines that had been foisted on the American public by the Help America Vote Act. He went so far as to run for Secretary of State in Washington on a platform centered around making sure elections had a verified paper trail to follow once the voting was done. Even while ill, Andy gave himself to this issue, teaching classes on how to audit your election and writing as much as he could on the matter.
After he died, I had the folks at my bar change the name on my mug. It says "Andy Stephenson" now, and I will be raising his name in a toast on Tuesday, November 7th. Whether it will be a toast to success or yet another farewell to American democracy remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. In my mind, this is Andy's election.
What would Andy think of the news stories that have been coming out over the last days and weeks?
Just today, the UK Guardian published a report titled "US Warned of Ballot Box Chaos as Elections Near." The report goes on to state, "Six years after the emergence of the now infamous 'hanging chad' in the 2000 presidential elections, monitoring groups warn that technological glitches and hackers could throw next month's mid-term elections into chaos. With polling day less than two weeks away, a report this week by electionline.org, a non-partisan organisation, anticipates problems at the ballot box in as many as 10 states. In many states, voters will be casting their votes electronically for the first time. The officials at the polling stations may be equally inexperienced, and because such workers are typically elderly and retired, critics say they may be particularly poorly equipped to deal with any technological problems."
"Those concerns crystallised last month," continues the Guardian report, "when a Princeton professor of computer science, Edward Felton, and two colleagues managed to hack into a new electronic voting machine without detection and install a virus that could alter vote counts - and go on to infect a wider network of machines. The exercise, which Mr Felton repeated on television, took about a minute to complete."
DeForest Soaries, Bush's first appointed chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission, recently stated that election systems currently in place in the United States, specifically the new electronic systems, are "ripe for stealing elections and for fraud."
In a mainstream media interview that was never aired, Soaries said of these new election systems, "There is no prototype. There are no standards. There is no scientific research that would guarantee any election district that there's a machine that can be used to answer these very serious questions. And so, my sense is that the politicians in Washington have concluded that the system can't be all that bad because, after all, it produced them. And as long as an elected official is an elected official, then whatever machine was used, whatever device was used to elect him or her, seems to be adequate. But there's an erosion of voting rights implicit in our inability to trust the technology that we use and if we were another country being analyzed by America, we would conclude that this country is ripe for stealing elections and for fraud."
This week's Mail and Guardian carried a story titled "Voting Problems Loom in US Election." The report reads, "Long lines and long counts threaten to mar next month's United States congressional elections as millions of Americans put new voting machines and rules to the test, election officials and experts say. Many of the changes take effect this year, when one-third of voters will cast their ballots on new electronic machines whose reliability in a national election is unproven. Ohio - where Democratic voters in 2004 complained that long lines in their neighbourhoods kept them from voting - and Pennsylvania are two states with major races where the voting process will be closely watched on November 7. Other states include Maryland, which had problems with its September primary election, and Georgia and Missouri, where courts threw out new voter-identification requirements and experts see a potential for disputes."
NBC's Utah affiliate KSL published a story this past week titled "Some Question Security of E-Voting Machines." The report read, "Two weeks before Election Day and red flags are still going up about new electronic voting machines in Utah and nationally. The big question is ... are the machines, and by definition even the elections, secure? As voters go to the polls, it's a whole new world. But there's a ghost of doubt hovering over the elections of 2006, thanks to the debacle of Florida in 2000. After more problems in Ohio in 2004, it's safe to say there's a growing perception our votes could be corrupted."
Columnist Bruce O'Dell, in an article this week titled "Pull the Plug on E-Voting," stated, "Voting by computer may be inherently untrustworthy and in practice poorly crafted, overpriced, prone to breakdowns and wide open to subversion - but at least it's less accurate than counting by hand. Here's an indictment of the IT profession, and a fine irony: the degree of independent hand-auditing of paper ballot records sufficient to verify the corresponding computerized vote tallies is comparable to the effort required to more accurately count all the ballots by hand in the first place, dispensing with the machines. But until that day arrives, the programs that the voting vendors actually distribute - as opposed to the software they may say they distribute - will continue to determine who takes power after the votes are tallied."
Maryland, it seems, is having quite an adventure with its new electronic voting machines. One story published by the Washington Post titled "Voting Machines Had Defective Part" reports that "The maker of Maryland's electronic voting system replaced a flawed electronic component in several thousand touch-screen voting machines in 2005, state election officials acknowledged this week. To eliminate unpredictable 'screen freezes' that have occurred since the machines were first used in Maryland in 2002, Diebold Election Systems installed new system boards in about 4,700 voting machines from four Maryland counties: Allegany, Dorchester, Montgomery and Prince George's. The screen freezes do not cause votes to be lost, officials said, but they confuse voters and election judges who sometimes wonder whether votes cast on a frozen machine will be counted."
Virginia is also enjoying the fun. A story that also appeared in the Post titled "Some Voting Machines Chop Off Candidates' Names" reports that "U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday. Thus, Democratic candidate Webb will appear with his first name and nickname only - or "James H. 'Jim'" - on summary pages in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville, the only jurisdictions in Virginia that use balloting machines manufactured by Hart InterCivic of Austin."
Perhaps the most disturbing report on these new voting machines came from writer Andy Ostroy in an article titled "Another Stolen Election Headed Our Way?" The center of this report is an interview with voting rights activist and New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller, who is flatly terrified that the kinds of fraud we saw in 2002 and 2004 will be repeated again this November.
Thankfully, Miller provided a list of actions voters can take if they think their vote isn't being counted:
1. Vote, vote, vote ... and get everyone you know to vote as well.
2. Write your congressmen and senators and demand uniformity and federal standards for the election process. Demand an end to electronic voting machines unless there's a viable paper trail. Demand paper ballots instead. Ask that election day be declared a national holiday.
3. Bombard the media with letters and calls that demand coverage of election fraud.
4. Organize demonstrations.
5. Go armed to the polls next month with 1-866-OUR-VOTE and call it immediately to report any fraudulent and/or suspicious activity.
Many factors will decide the outcome of the November midterms. The carnage in Iraq and the staggering death toll absorbed by American soldiers and Iraqi civilians will play a part. The rank corruption of Jack Abramoff and his Republican congressional cronies will play a part. The scandal surrounding Rep. Mark Foley will play a part. The immigration debate that has divided the Republican party will play a part. The courageous decision by a New Jersey court to grant equal rights to gay couples will play a part, because the Religious Right intends to use that decision to whoop up the conservative base.
In the end, however, crummy and easily-hackable electronic voting machines manufactured by companies with financial ties to the Republican Party may play the greatest part of all. Andy Stephenson lived and died trying to warn us about these things. The good news, for Andy and for us all, is that these news reports are drawing much-needed attention to the problem. The bad news, simply, is that the problems still exist, and may come to determine who holds power in America after January.
One way or another, I will be raising Andy's glass on November 7th. Hopefully, that glass will not be filled, once again, with bitter dregs.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. His newest book, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation, will be available this winter from PoliPointPress.