FIXING ELECTIONS/Steven Hill & Rob Richie

Democracy on the Cheap

Much stock is being put into new voting technology as a means of dealing with the problems of disfranchisement that emerged in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Following that botched election, Florida spent millions of dollars for new touchscreen voting equipment, attracted to this new technology because of its easy facility with multilingual ballots and of notifying a voter of errors.

Yet when Florida debuted its new equipment during its 2002 primary elections, major problems occurred, at least in some counties, that disproportionately affected people of color and low-income people -- just like the punch card machines did in the 2000 election. In the hotly contested Democratic gubernatorial primary, Janet Reno lost by a small percentage to Bill McBride on the Democratic side, and the touchscreen voting equipment produced a shockingly high rate of "lost votes" in the primary in Miami, among African-Americans, according to the ACLU of Florida. The fear was that the voting equipment had malfunctioned.

It was déjà vu all over again.

Certainly the touchscreen technology offers a lot, including the ability to reduce voter error. If you want to see some of the possibilities, just look at the country of Brazil. Brazil is a country of 180 million people, multiracial, multilingual, with vast stretches of rural territory, much like the US. Brazil now uses computer-based voting for all local, state and federal elections. It's but not perfect yet, but it is a national system with plenty of safeguards in place. Voters see a list of candidates on the computer screen and type in the number of the candidate (such as 2, for the second candidate listed). Then the name, party and PHOTO of the candidate appear on the screen, so the voter is sure she's voting correctly. No overvotes, no undervotes, no liberal Jewish voters mistakenly choosing Pat Buchanan as we saw in Florida. The fact is, the US is playing catch up to Brazil when it comes to modernizing our election administration.

How can this be?

One of the causes is that, under our current election administration regime, there is very little commitment from the federal government to create a national system like that used by Brazil. Instead, the system is decentralized with administration left to over three thousand counties scattered across the nation. There is no strong National Electoral Commission like other nations have, and not surprisingly there are very few national standards or public oversight. And there's little guidance to assist election administrators when they have to bargain with the corporate vendors who sell them their voting equipment. In short, it's the wild, wild west out there.

And then there are the vendors themselves. The field currently is dominated by three companies, Elections Systems and Software, Sequoia Pacific and Diebold. In the mid-1990s, the industry had been the subject of a little-publicized antitrust and antiracketeering lawsuit by the Department of Justice, resulting in the breakup of the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, Business Records Corporation. The current vendors can best be described as relatively small for-profit companies, cutting corners to make a buck, fighting easy-to-do capacities like being able to handle ranked ballot elections used for instant runoff voting, and producing voting machines that aren't nearly as good as they could or should be.

In short, the current vendors cannot be trusted to produce the best possible products, and counties and election administrators can't be trusted to buy the best of those possible products.

Moreover, there is little in the way of a firewall between the corporations who run elections and partisan politics. Recently, links were discovered between the heads of the three largest corporations selling voting equipment and the upper echelons of the Republican Party. Walden O'Dell, the CEO of Diebold, it turns out, attended strategy pow-wows with wealthy Bush benefactors at the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch. O'Dell told Republicans in a fund-raising letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," even as his company was seeking to win a multimillion dollar contract to provide Ohio with new computerized voting equipment.

It seems incongruous: federal employees are forbidden from working on federal elections campaigns to prevent a patronage system from catching hold. The specter of a president pressuring federal employees to work on his or her reelection campaign was enough to mandate a firewall between our elections process and your local postal clerk. Yet no such firewall exists today between politics and those who head the corporations that run our elections.

Also, there has been a disturbing trend lately of a government-to-industry revolving door. Former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who just a year ago was the chief regulator of the industry in California, now is a paid consultant to one of the major voting machine firms, Sequoia Pacific. Another official who oversaw the certification of new voting machines under Jones has signed on as a competitor's California general manager. In California, where 54 counties are expected to buy about $400 million in new equipment, voting machine makers are hiring former government officials such as Jones to supply prestige, a foot in the door, or expertise for a competitive edge.

California is not the only state where these sorts of conflicts are occurring. The Los Angeles Times reported that in Ohio, one vendor competing for $100 million in contracts recently treated election officials to free meals, limousine rides and concert tickets. Other vendors have spent thousands of dollars on major conferences of election officials, footing the bill for hospitality suites, banquets, pool parties and boat outings -- even a Maine lobster bake. Even former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu has gotten in on the act, contacting prospective customers on behalf of Diebold Election Systems.

The question creeping to the fore is the following: Is the manufacture and selling of voting equipment just another business? Or is there something special and significant about our electoral infrastructure, the means of counting the ballots of our democracy, that cries out for a federal system with national standards and regulations? That cries out for filling the gaping hole in the Constitution where a clearly stated universal right to vote should be?

Imagine an alternative reality, in which the federal government would use its immense resources to invest in developing voting technologies that were truly cutting edge, with open source software, voter verified paper trails, national standards, the public interest incorporated without resistance, and more. Counties and states would need to use equipment that met the same high standards.

But no, instead we are stuck with the current vendors and the decentralized hodge podge that have made US democracy a laughingstock around the world.

Call it democracy on the cheap. Let's keep that in mind the next time our leaders lecture other nations about how important we think democracy is. The lack of voter verified paper trails are only part of the problem, the bigger picture reveals our acceptance of a failed election administration regime gone awry.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy ( and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics ( Rob Richie is executive director of the center.

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