Sunday :: Oct 24, 2004

Winning the Election

by Mary

Now in these final days as the campaigns unwind their final offenses, election day looms. On November 2nd, all the efforts and strategies of the past few years are weighed by the results of the actual vote. No longer will it be a question of who has run a better campaign or who has raised more money or who polls better. It will be how many Americans get out and vote. And this year more than most, it will be about whether we have a functional democracy and people believe we have had a fair election.

Today, it is far from a forgone conclusion that Americans will have a fair election. As Jimmy Carter wrote last month in the WaPo, American elections do not conform to the international standards for elections that are seen to be transparent, honest and fair. In fact, the Carter Center could not certify our elections as they do so many others because they lack two fundamental requirements:

• A nonpartisan electoral commission or a trusted and nonpartisan official who will be responsible for organizing and conducting the electoral process before, during and after the actual voting takes place. Although rarely perfect in their objectivity, such top administrators are at least subject to public scrutiny and responsible for the integrity of their decisions. Florida voting officials have proved to be highly partisan, brazenly violating a basic need for an unbiased and universally trusted authority to manage all elements of the electoral process.

• Uniformity in voting procedures, so that all citizens, regardless of their social or financial status, have equal assurance that their votes are cast in the same way and will be tabulated with equal accuracy. Modern technology is already in use that makes electronic voting possible, with accurate and almost immediate tabulation and with paper ballot printouts so all voters can have confidence in the integrity of the process. There is no reason these proven techniques, used overseas and in some U.S. states, could not be used in Florida.

Both these requirements were identified by the bipartisan commission that Carter and Gerald Ford led after the debacle of the 2000 election yet were never addressed by the Congress when they worked on the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

Note, what Carter says about Florida goes double for a number of the states, including Ohio where there are clear signs that there are some shady dealings underway. As Josh Marshall notes, the Republicans recruited Larry Russell of South Dakota fame for trying to rig the 2002 election to go to Ohio to work his dark magic there.

What does Carter say about what we can do to try to forestall a national election where most people believe the results are suspect and even worse, fraudulent? His recommendation is for citizens to help validate the election through maximum public scrutiny.

One place we need maximum public scrutiny is in verifying that precincts using touch screen voting machines (DREs) are using every conceivable preventative action to reassure people that their votes are not being tampered with. It is very worrying to read articles from areas with early voting using DREs are already reporting problems.

So what are some of the problems with today's current DREs? To get a complete understanding of the genuine concerns about the reliability and security problems, watch the new movie: Votergate. It is an impressive, compelling, and comprehensive review of the problems with the technology, packed with numerous interviews with the top computer scientists and other experts that are tracking this issue.

VOTERGATE is a an investigative “action documentary.” It documents the outrageous story of election officials and corporate interests colluding to control America’s voting systems through electronic voting machines. Simultaneously witty and shocking, it follows computer hackers, triumphant individual citizens, and concerned politicians as they organize, investigate corruption and corporate malfeasance, and break the security of the machines. All in all VOTERGATE is a youthful and stylish look at a David-vs-Goliath attempt to save American democracy.

[Aside: As a computer scientist, I was especially impressed with the clear description of how the buffer overrun problem in computers works and why it can be so dangerous. As everyone using computers knows, there are a number of security flaws in the software that leaves your computers susceptible to nasty viruses and worms. The buffer overrun flaw is the major culprit for the security holes in our software today.]

Why this issue is so important is because almost a third of the electorate will be voting on these systems. The fact that there are no paper trails means that there can be no recounts. Thus, the electorate must know that the votes that are being recorded are correct and are not being compromised by hackers or other failures.

One of the more amusing and ironic stories told in the film was that in Palm Beach County, FL, the election supervisor, Teresa LaPore, known for her butterfly ballot, lost the primary for another term by a very close margin on the new DREs she purchased. When she lost, the first thing she demanded was a recount, yet, because there is no separate audit trail, no recount was possible.

Once you understand the full extent of the problem, the film provides suggestions to what can be done to prevent the problems. Some of the recommendations are:

  • Volunteer as a poll-watcher.
  • Make sure your precinct posts the incremental results publically
  • Make sure the vote tallying center publically publishes the votes they received from precincts so you can match up the numbers sent and the numbers received
  • If you encounter problems voting, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE
  • Visit to see what else you can do
  • Share this film with others so they too can help
  • Make a donation that will get this film wider exposure

It is a shame that the world's oldest modern democracy has to worry so much about this election. As John Dean writes in his latest column, all the signs are there for a very chaotic and litigious post-election time. As citizens of this country, it is important that we do all we can to forestall the worst of the problems, because nothing will weaken this country more than having an election that is disputed and where citizens do not accept that the election was won fair and square.

Mary :: 3:37 PM :: Comments (12) :: Digg It!