The best news coming out of the first hearing of the Carter-Baker Commission is that the co-chairs recognize that Americans are losing faith in their democracy, and that even in the 2004 presidential election -- among the most passionate elections in recent history -- 40% did not vote and, increasing numbers of voters lack confidence that their votes were counted as cast. The bad news is that a corporate conflict of interest of one member of the Commission raises doubts that they will recommend the common sense necessity -- voter verified paper ballots.
With regard to the counting of votes, people are concerned about paperless electronic voting because it provides no independent record for audits or recounts. The machines are known to be a high security risk and vulnerable to: insider programmers who can put undetectable malicious code in the software, by election officials who have access to the machines and by outside hackers – all of these players can change the outcome of an election. And, of course, nearly all Americans have had the experience of computer freezing and crashing – it is also an experience that election administrators have seen with the use of computers in elections.
Indeed, a recent report in Maryland by the Montgomery County Information Technology Department concluded that as a result of 106 machines freezing in the middle of a vote “Maryland election judges are unable to provide substantial confirmation that the vote was in fact counted.” (See page 11, Lessons Learned, www.truevotemd.org/Resources/Lessons_Learned.pdf)
The IT report found that there was a 12 percent failure rate with the machines on Election Day – seven percent failed completely, while five percent were suspect because of the low vote totals. How can voters be confident in machines with such high levels of malfunction?
Thankfully, President Carter and his co-chair Secretary of State James Baker recognize the common sense necessity to the need to verify the electronic vote count. During the first hearing of the Carter-Baker Elections Commission, Carter spoke in favor of voter verified paper ballots saying: “We might very well recommend electronic voting systems with a paper trail.” Carter described, more than once, what he has in mind for a paper trail. In various countries where the Carter Center has monitored elections, he described how people vote on an electronic machine, which prints out a paper ballot, that the voter checks and then places in a ballot box. Random checks can then verify the accuracy of the electronic count by comparing it to the paper count. “I have no disagreement,” Baker said of this proposal.
President Carter was referring to recent elections in Venezuela where those opposed to the re-election of President Hugo Chavez initially claimed the vote had been stolen when he won re-election. Anger was building in reaction to the vote and violence was a real possibility. Thankfully, in Venezuela the electronic voting machines include a voter verified paper ballot and therefore an independent audit of the machines was possible. When the audit was completed it was evident that there was no fraud and in fact Chavez had won re-election -- everyone accepted the result.
A similar incident occurred recently in the United States. In New Hampshire many Democrats were surprised by the strong showing of President Bush in townships bordering on Senator Kerry's home state of Massachusetts. In reaction to thousands of requests from voters, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader requested a recount. Thankfully, New Hampshire requires a paper record of all votes cast so original voter intent could be examined in a hand recount. Nader targeted the jurisdictions that were most suspicious and a hand recount of paper ballots was conducted. The recount found that the machine count, in this case optical scans of paper ballots, was accurate. Confidence in the outcome of the vote count in New Hampshire was restored.
Bill Gardner, the New Hampshire Secretary of State, unlike many election administrators, has come to learn that recounts are an important part of ensuring credibility of an election outcome. He makes the point that a successful election is when the losing candidate, and his or her supporters, are confident that the result was accurate. The capability of conducting a transparent hand recount of paper ballots in public with the media and all interested parties watching, is critical to achieving that goal.
Other election administrators like Linda Lamone of Maryland, believe the false claim that paperless DRE machines allow for a recount. In fact all they allow for is recounting the record created by the computer. When machines make an error recording the vote the recount will merely repeat that error. Lamone, who is president of the National Association of State Election Directors, is famous in Maryland for testifying under oath that computerized voting machines “are not computers.” This underscores another serious (and frightening) problem: elections administrators do not understand the technology they are charged with implementing. NOT recommended.
Why do Lamone and some other administrators oppose paper? Because it is a hassle to store and recount. Surely restoring voter confidence is a higher priority than administrative convenience when it comes to demands from citizens for accurate elections.
In fact, in Washington state, when the hand recount of ballots was conducted for the 2004 Gubernatorial race, the ballots on DRE machines were never recounted because the parties recognized that a reprint of the DRE digital data would be meaningless as it would only regurgitate the same numbers stored in the machine memory. This is not an independent source of information needed for a real recount or audit.
The most strident opposition to voter verified paper ballots comes from some – not all - in the disabled community. Happily, there are solutions for these accessibility concerns with both optical scan and DRE machines that allow disabled voters to verify their ballots as well. Indeed, in Maryland three blind advocacy organizations have endorsed legislation and ongoing efforts to require voter verified paper ballots.
The Carter-Baker Commission is offering some hope, but that hope is being undermined by the make-up of the Commission and the way it is being administered. On the Commission is Ralph Munro the former Secretary of State of Washington. Unfortunately, Mr. Munro is currently the Chairman of the Board of VoteHere. VoterHere has invested over a million dollars in trying to capture the new “voter verification market” created by paperless e-voting. Rather than trust-inspiring voter verified paper ballots, VoteHere is marketing a cryptographic verification method – one that voters and even computer security experts will not be able to understand and that has not been tested in real elections.
Mr. Munro's company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against voter verified paper ballots. In New York, Roberto Ramirez, a longtime adviser and aide to Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, is a partner in Mirram Global that is being paid $10,000 a month by VoteHere to “prevent a new law that requires paper ballots,” according to a contract on file with the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying. New York is just one of many states where VoteHere is lobbying against voter verified paper ballots.
While Mr. Munro could be an appropriate witness before an election reform commission, his obvious conflict of interest should keep him from serving on the commission itself. In reaction to this conflict we contacted the executive director of the Commission, Rob Pastor, to suggest a way to avoid this problem. We said:
“One suggestion that you might want to consider -- have Ralph Munro announce that he will recuse himself from discussion and decision making concerning voter verified paper ballots and other methods of verification. And, if there are other Commission members with a financial stake in this specific question they should take a similar step. Such a change is a reasonable way to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest and would alleviate our concerns.”
Dr. Pastor has not yet responded. Instead, a commission staff member, Nicole Byrd responded suggesting that we merely write a formal comment to the Commission. This form letter response suggests a lack of concern that is inappropriate for someone in his position to conflicts of interest and appearances of impropriety that raise questions about his ethics and the ethics of the Commission. Sadly, having Mr., Munro who has a financial interest in blocking voter verified paper ballots in a decision-making role on this important issue diminishes the hopes of voters.
Another group that has expressed concerns about the make-up of the Commission, Velvet Revolution received an irate, threatening phone call from Dr. Pastor because thousands of citizens have sent emails to the Commission expressing concern about its make-up.
One piece of good news, yesterday Dr. Pastor met with Congressman John Conyers, Jr. Rep. Conyers will now have an open line of communication with the Commission. Unfortunately, that does not resolve the problem of corporate conflicts of interests embedded in the make-up of the commission.
Hopefully, President Carter will not let himself be influenced by the profit-based perspective of Mr. Munro and instead put voter's first. But, the reaction of the Commission to this obvious corporate conflict of interest leaves us concerned.
Brad Blog, Executive Director of National Election Reform Commission Goes Ballistic at BRAD BLOG!, April 19, 2005, http://www.bradblog.com/archives/00001337.htm
Montgomery County IT report is available on www.TrueVoteMD.org
Information on the New Hampshire recount is available on www.VoteNader.org
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