Wayne O'Leary

Democracy on the Edge

As the world's greatest banana republic cast its election ballots this past November, it became immediately apparent that nothing much had fundamentally altered in the way American democracy carries out its supposedly solemn responsibilities. On the surface, of course, there was plenty of change. Shiny, state-of-the-art voting technology was everywhere; an estimated 16 million new computerized machines had been installed in polling places nationwide for the 2006 midterms, and one-third of those going to the polls were expected to have voted electronically by election night.

Sadly, it made little positive difference to the process. The same kinds of problems and irregularities that appeared in the previous several elections (delays, equipment malfunctions, lost votes, long lines, voter confusion, helpless poll workers) reared their ugly heads once more in at least 18 states. From Colorado, Texas and Utah in the trans-Mississippi West to Ohio, Indiana, Florida, and Virginia in the Eastern time zone, tens of thousands of Americans were frustrated in their efforts to exercise the franchise.

To a remarkable degree, the difficulties encountered on Election Day were accentuated, not ameliorated, by the vaunted high-tech voting systems installed in the wake of the Florida disaster of 2000. This time, it was not hanging chads or faulty punch cards, but confusing or unreliable automated machines. The problems presented in the voting booth were especially acute for the elderly, the less educated, and those journalist Mark Shields characterized as "techno-phobes" (a category in which he charitably placed himself), who were having particular trouble voting or were being discouraged from trying.

A hilarious pre-election skit on satirist Jon Stewart's The Daily Show highlighted the brave, new world of E-voting and at the same time provided a cautionary suggestion of its perils. Queried about the specifics of computerized voting machines, "reporter" John Hodgman offered a visual of something called the AccuClaw (a take off on the Diebold company's AccuVote), a device that bore an uncanny resemblance to the clawed contraption millions of Americans have manipulated at carnivals or state fairs in (mostly futile) attempts to capture prizes. "It looks hard to control," observed Stewart. "That's what I like best about it, too," deadpanned Hodgman.

In the 2006 elections, life imitated the art of comedy, and the results were not pretty. The question is why this was allowed to happen; the answer lies in a combination of business greed, political corruption, and an almost mystical faith in technology. The Bush-Gore presidential standoff in Florida led to a perfectly understandable demand for electoral reform, so that the spectacle of bug-eyed ballot checkers endlessly trying to decipher voters' intentions would not be repeated. It was instantly decided that the solution should be a hightech one. Pencils and paper? How retro!

Congress sprang into action and, with little study or debate, delivered the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided $3.9 billion in federal funds to the states, if they agreed to replace punch-card and lever-machine systems with more improved means of casting and counting votes. The gold rush was on, led by politically connected Diebold Election Systems Inc., of Ohio (whose CEO was a Bush fundraiser), and its chief competitors, Election Systems and Software Inc. (ES&S) of Nebraska and California-based Sequoia Voting Systems.

State election officials were quickly convinced or, if necessary, bought off by a Pentagon-like revolving-door process whereby local authorities approving the purchase of computerized machines often later go to work for their manufacturers. In one celebrated conflict-of-interest case, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who ordered Diebold touch-screen devices while in office, was eventually found to be a Diebold stockholder and a recipient of political donations from the company's lobbyists.

Meanwhile, independent computer scientists warned repeatedly of the shortcomings of the new voting machines: lack of a verifiable paper trail, susceptibility to software bugs and glitches, code tapering and hacking by unscrupulous partisans. It was mostly to no avail. Although failures of electronic mechanisms were uncovered in Maryland, Georgia, and Alabama as early as 2002, leading to the banning of their use in some places, the momentum was hard to slow; the profit to be made on each $4,000 machine and the promise of millions in federal grants was just too enticing. In 2003, for example, Maryland officials signed an agreement worth $56 million with Diebold for the purchase of 11,000 touch screens.

By the 2004 presidential election, electronic voting of some form was the rule, not the exception, in the US. An analysis by Election Data Services indicated that about a third of Americans expressed their preference that year on touch-screen computers (the pure form of E-voting), while another third used paper ballots that were then electronically tallied by optical scanners. Only the remaining third employed punch cards and levers, and fewer than 1% filled out hand-counted paper ballots. Still, the problems kept coming. Days after the election, Diebold settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit alleging the company had sold shoddy electronic voting equipment to the state of California; the state collected $2.6 million.

On to 2006. In this year's midterms, an estimated 66 million voters employed the highly-suspect touch-screen machines, despite their spotty track record. The nagging problem of ballot security remained. So far, the worst culprits appear to have been ES&S computers, which caused 18,000 votes (13% of the total cast) to disappear into the ether in one Florida congressional race, with the usual absence of a backup paper record. Still, voting officials around the country, mesmerized by technology and unwilling to admit an expensive mistake, persist in endorsing unreliable E-voting.

The prevailing attitude seems to be: We're converting to technology for everything else, so why not for elections? But some things just don't have a computerized application. Voting should be done so as to empower the least technologically sophisticated among us; it should be easy for everyone to vote, not just the young, the educated or the tech-heads. Above all, those votes should be secure.

The best solution may be a semi-automated one that combines traditional paper ballots with optical scanners; it's the system used successfully in Canada for all national elections, as well as by all or part of 28 states in the US. And it provides a reliable paper trail for those inevitable recounts. Obviously, Diebold won't like it. Too bad; it's our democracy.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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