Saturday, December 09, 2006

Is there really hope that we might start to fix our voting system?

Among the many urgent problems facing us in the US, let us not lose sight of the fact that our voting system is a dangerous mess--somewhere between Rube Goldberg and banana republic (I don't mean the clothing store).

The 2000 election made it unavoidably clear that there was a drastic problem, and since then the response, incredibly enough, has been to make matters even worse. More and more electoral districts switched to computerized voting systems that expert analysts have argued are easily susceptible to malfunction or fraud (not to mention the fact that their electronic innards are controlled by unaccountable private corporations). And, to top it all off, most of them have no voter-confirmed paper trail, which means in practice that serious recounts are impossible and mistakes or fraud or malfunctions are almost impossible to double-check.

To avoid getting detoured into irrelevancies, let us add immediately that not all of the problems with our voting are subject to a technological fix. Election officials are too often political appointees with a strong interest in skewing results and covering up malfeasance, various forms of vote suppression and illegitimate disqualification of valid voters (carelessly or deliberately) are demonstrably widespread, and so on. And the American political system has a rich, complex, and creative history of electoral fraud and manipulation that goes back well before the advent of computerized voting machines.

But techniques like ballot-stuffing, multiple voting, and violent intimidation of voters at least require work, and their operation is conspicuous. Black-box electronic systems with no paper trail or accountability make large-scale fraud just too easy to commit and to cover up. And even if results are thrown off by errors or malfunctions rather than deliberate fraud, it should worry all of us--Democrats, Republicans, and whoever else--that it's impossible to be sure whether the official results are anywhere near valid.

The 2006 elections did not end in a spectacular mess, but most likely we were just lucky. To pick only one widely-reported example that everyone agrees smells very fishy, in Florida's 13th Congressional District (Katherine Harris's old district, no less), the official results put the Republican candidate 369 votes ahead, but almost 18,000 completed ballots (yes, that's 18,000) registered no vote for the Congressional race. Is that plausible? No. (Though a commission made up of Governor Jeb Bush and two other Republican elected officials said that the outcome looked fine to them.) These electronic totals should inspire absolutely no confidence in any half-intelligent person. But it appears that there is no way to check these results. And this is just one case that we happen to know about, because the anomaly was so obvious and conspicuous. There are probably other cases that are more uncertain or simply invisible.

Let's even assume, as a Diebold spokesman suggested several months ago, that it's too cynical to imagine that any of our public officials or party operatives would actually take advantage of these opportunities for electronic election fraud. Heaven forbid! But do we really want to have some future Presidential election decided either by a computer glitch or by a bunch of teen-age hackers? The most optimistic thing we can say about this voting system is that it's a bomb waiting to go off.

A New York Times editorial shortly after the elections ("Counting the Vote, Badly" - November 16, 2006), though written with their characteristic lack of zip, managed to zero in on some of the key points:
Last week's elections provided a lot of disturbing news about the reliability of electronic voting--starting, naturally, with Florida. In a Congressional race there between Vern Buchanan, a Republican, and Christine Jennings, a Democrat, the machines in Sarasota County reported that more than 18,000 people, or one in eight, did not choose either candidate. That "undervote" of nearly 13 percent is hard to believe, given that only about 2.5 percent of absentee voters did not vote in that race. If there was a glitch, it may have made all the difference. Ms. Jennings trails Mr. Buchanan by about 400 votes.

The serious questions about the Buchanan-Jennings race only add to the high level of mistrust that many people already feel about electronic voting. More than half of the states, including California, New York, Ohio and Illinois, now require that electronic voting machines produce voter-verified paper records, which help ensure that votes are properly recorded. But Congress has resisted all appeals to pass a law that would ensure that electronic voting is honest and accurate across the nation. [....]
Election reform has tended to be a partisan issue, with Democrats arguing for reform and Republicans resisting it. It shouldn't be. Congressional Democrats should make fixing this country's broken system of elections a top priority, and Republicans should join them.
Furthermore, the editorial indicated that serious reform (as opposed to the kind of "reform" we have gotten used to over the past 6 years) might be more than a pious wish:
Fortunately, that may be about to change. With the Democrats now in control of both houses, there is an excellent chance of passing tough electronic voting legislation. Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, had more than 200 co-sponsors for a strong electronic voting bill before this month's election, and support is likely to grow in the new Congress. In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will be chairwoman of the Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees elections, plans to develop a similar bill.

The problems with elections go well beyond electronic voting. Partisan secretaries of state continue to skew the rules to favor their parties and political allies. States are adopting harsh standards for voter registration drives to make it harder for people to register, as well as draconian voter identification laws to make casting a ballot harder for poor people, racial minorities, the elderly and students. Some states have adopted an indefensible rule that provisional ballots cast at the wrong table of the correct polling place must be thrown out.

Congress has failed to address these and other important flaws with the mechanics of the election system. But this, too, may be about to change. Senator Feinstein is saying that providing fair access to the ballot will be among her committee's top priorities in the coming year. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, plans to revise and reintroduce her "Count Every Vote Act," which takes an admirably broad approach to overhauling the voting system.
Did this sound too good to be true? I couldn't help wondering. But a recent article (below) suggests that there might really be some prospects for sanity.
By the 2008 presidential election, voters around the country are likely to see sweeping changes in how they cast their ballots and how those ballots are counted, including an end to the use of most electronic voting machines without a paper trail, federal voting officials and legislators say.

New federal guidelines, along with legislation given a strong chance to pass in Congress next year, will probably combine to make the paperless voting machines obsolete, the officials say. [....] Motivated in part by voting problems during the midterm elections last month, the changes are a result of a growing skepticism among local and state election officials, federal legislators and the scientific community about the reliability and security of the paperless touch-screen machines used by about 30 percent of American voters.

The changes also mean that the various forms of vote-counting software used around the country—most of which are protected by their manufacturers for reasons of trade secrecy—will for the first time be inspected by federal authorities, and the code could be made public. There will also be greater federal oversight on how new machines are tested before they arrive at polling stations.

“In the next two years I think we’ll see the kinds of sweeping changes that people expected to see right after the 2000 election,” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan election group.
Let's hope so. At the moment, having suffered through years out of power during which the Republicans controlled most state governments, many Democrats seem to share a feeling that making the system more honest, transparent, and reliable is in their interest. This feeling on their part favors the public good, so they'd better act on it before it starts to fade. Given enough time, perhaps some of them may start to feel that finding ways to game the system is more "realistic" than trying to reform it. This is the right moment for all of us to bombard them with demands for genuine reform.

To repeat, the kinds of changes described in this article would not, by themselves, add up to a complete repair of our voting system. But they would constitute to an essential, minimally necessary, first step. After all these years during which halting the slide toward disaster seemed hopeless, even a slight promise of improvement is exciting.

At the same time, the usual caveats apply.
“We’re confident that the accuracy and integrity of voting is going to take some big steps forward with the legislation in Congress right now,” said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, an advocacy group that prefers optical scanners to touch screens. “But our big concern is to avoid replacing old problems with new ones.”
So let's all stay tuned.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
New York Times
December 8, 2006
Changes Are Expected in Voting by 2008 Election
By Ian Urbina and Christopher Drew

By the 2008 presidential election, voters around the country are likely to see sweeping changes in how they cast their ballots and how those ballots are counted, including an end to the use of most electronic voting machines without a paper trail, federal voting officials and legislators say.

New federal guidelines, along with legislation given a strong chance to pass in Congress next year, will probably combine to make the paperless voting machines obsolete, the officials say. States and counties that bought the machines will have to modify them to hook up printers, at federal expense, while others are planning to scrap the machines and buy new ones.

Motivated in part by voting problems during the midterm elections last month, the changes are a result of a growing skepticism among local and state election officials, federal legislators and the scientific community about the reliability and security of the paperless touch-screen machines used by about 30 percent of American voters.

The changes also mean that the various forms of vote-counting software used around the country — most of which are protected by their manufacturers for reasons of trade secrecy — will for the first time be inspected by federal authorities, and the code could be made public. There will also be greater federal oversight on how new machines are tested before they arrive at polling stations.

“In the next two years I think we’ll see the kinds of sweeping changes that people expected to see right after the 2000 election,” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan election group. “The difference now is that we have moved from politics down to policies.”

Many of the paperless machines were bought in a rush to overhaul the voting system after the disputed presidential election in 2000, which was marred by hanging chads. But concerns have been growing that in a close election those machines give election workers no legitimate way to conduct a recount or to check for malfunctions or fraud.

Several counties around the country are already considering scrapping their voting systems after problems this year, and last week federal technology experts concluded for the first time that paperless touch-screen machines could not be secured from tampering.

Having stalled for over two years, federal legislation requiring a shift to paper trails and other safeguards, proposed by Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, has a better chance of passing next session, several members of Congress and election officials say.

They say that fixing the voting system is viewed as a core issue by the new Democratic leaders, and the bill already has the bipartisan support of more than a majority of the current House. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who will be the new chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said she planned to introduce a similar bill in January.

But it is also clear that the changes will not come without a struggle. State and local election officials are still reeling from the last major overhaul of the country’s voting system, initiated by the Help America Vote Act in 2002, and some say that the $150 million in federal aid proposed by Mr. Holt would not be enough to pay for the changes.

Advocates for the disabled say they will resist his bill, because the touch-screen machines are the easiest for blind people to use. And the voting machine companies say they will argue against making the software code completely public, partly out of concern about making the system more vulnerable to hackers.

Paul S. DeGregorio, the chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, which was created by Congress in 2002 to set voting standards, also cautioned against rushing to make changes, especially since some counties also ran into problems with printers in this year’s elections. “All of the implications have to be looked at carefully,” Mr. DeGregorio said in an interview.

Still, the changes are rapidly gaining momentum, partly because the Help America Vote Act did not go far enough in establishing clear guidelines for the type of machines that should be used, many critics have said. It took so long for the federal guidelines to be established that many local voting officials bought new equipment without the full benefit of federal research and standards.

“Everyone was getting intense pressure to comply by January 2006, and so they went ahead and bought,” said Alysoun McLaughlin, who was a lobbyist for the National Association of Counties at the time.

Now some local and state officials are paying the price as they shelve machines that have problems or that could soon be out of compliance.

In Maryland, legislators say they plan to replace the more than $70 million worth of touch-screen machines the state began buying in 2002 with paper optical scanners, which officials estimate could cost $20 million.

Voters in Sarasota, Fla., where the results of a Congressional race recorded on touch-screen machines are being contested in court, passed a ballot initiative last month to make the same change, at an estimated cost of $3 million. Last year, New Mexico spent $14 million to replace its touch screens. Other states are spending millions more to retrofit the machines to add paper trails.

New York has been slow to replace its old lever voting machines, and the state has required counties to buy screens with printers or optical scanners. New Jersey has passed a law requiring its counties to switch to machines with paper trails by 2008, and Connecticut is buying machines that can scan paper ballots.

This week, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, a federal panel of technical experts that helps set voting standards, adopted a resolution that recommends requiring any new electronic voting systems to have an independent means of verification, a move that could eventually prevent paperless touch-screen machines from being federally certified.

Touch-screen machines with paper trails give voters a chance to check their choices on a small piece of paper before casting their ballots, while large rolls of paper keep a running tally and can be used to check the vote count made by the machine’s software. Localities can also use optical-scan systems, in which paper ballots marked by voters are counted by scanning machines and remain available for recounts.

Over the last two years, 27 states have passed laws requiring a shift to machines with paper trails, and 8 others do not have such laws but use the machines statewide. Some counties have attached rolls of paper to touch-screen machines, at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 for each device, while others have bought optical-scanning devices.

Five states — Maryland, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Delaware — still use only the paperless machines, and 10 states have counties that use them and have not made plans to change.

State and local election officials say they have been overwhelmed by the changes since 2002, and they are worried about how much they may have to pay to meet new requirements. Many have already spent millions in state and local money to buy and operate new machines, and Mr. Holt’s changes would require retraining poll workers as well as add the recurring costs of buying paper ballots and conducting election audits.

Because some printers malfunctioned last month, election commissioners in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, said last week that they were considering scrapping their new $17 million system of touch-screen machines and starting over with optical scanning devices.

In Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, electronic machines can print a paper tally, but do not give voters a paper record, meaning they would not comply with Mr. Holt’s bill. Beverly Kaufman, the county clerk, said she and other election officials elsewhere disliked the paper requirement.

“Every time you introduce something perishable like paper, you inject some uncertainty into the system,” Ms. Kaufman said. She said she was skeptical that Congress would come up with enough money for replacements by 2008. “You show me where you can pry the cold, bony fingers off the money in Washington, D.C., that fast,” she said.

Another significant change that will affect how votes are counted involves the recording and tallying software embedded in each electronic machine. Under changes approved by the Election Assistance Commission yesterday, voting machine manufacturers would have to make their crucial software code available to federal inspectors. The code is now checked mainly by private testing laboratories paid by the manufacturers. Mr. Holt would go even further, requiring the commission to make the code publicly available.

Computer experts and voting rights groups have long advocated such openness, arguing that the code is too important to be kept secret and would allow programmers to check for bugs and the potential for hacking. But manufacturers are resistant. Michelle Shafer, a vice president at Sequoia Voting Systems, said that while the industry was willing to give the source code to state and federal officials, “we feel that just putting it out there would give it to people with an intent to do something malicious or harmful.”

Because election technology is changing so quickly, it is not clear that the new requirements, particularly the demand for a paper trail, will stand the test of time, and advocates for change are already worried about a jury-rigged solution for 2008.

“We’re confident that the accuracy and integrity of voting is going to take some big steps forward with the legislation in Congress right now,” said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, an advocacy group that prefers optical scanners to touch screens. “But our big concern is to avoid replacing old problems with new ones.”

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