Voting Transparency: Through The Looking Glass of Technological Ballot Boxes

humboldt-county-full.gifThroughout the primaries we heard, “it’s 8:00 pm in the east, polls have closed, CNN can now declare with 1% of the ballots counted, Senator Barack Obama is the winner of the South Carolina Primary.”

99% accuracy. How did they know? Exit polling is part of it. But polling places, early voting, and questionable technology speed results to a salivating media, despite proven flaws and security holes big enough to drive a monster truck through.

The problem is, a potentially racist, lying Veep candidate is more exciting than real news or issues that require thinking and then mobilization. Most just do not want think about ballot security.

The Tucson (Arizona) Citizen, (subject city of my previous articles on vote fraud), wrote this week:

“Local activists sometimes seem overly excited by the merest hint of errors in election procedures. Be grateful that they do. With a pivotal presidential election in only 45 days, citizens and officials should welcome every effort to ensure ballot integrity in Pima County and nationwide. The most persnickety of people’s concerns must be resolved to ensure accurate vote counts and to renew public confidence in our system.”

How do we fix the ‘illusion’ of Ballot security in a divided, distrustful, partisan and polarized electorate to bring transparency to and faith in the system? We go back to the future. Paper is once again king!

Vi Nethino was town clerk of Avon, Massachusetts for 30-years. Vi knew everyone and took her job very seriously. When you arrived at our polling station, neighbors were there supervising. Confidence was high as you placed your paper ballot envelope upside down on top of the box and the man turned the lever producing a tiny bell’s ‘ding.’ You were sure your vote had been cast and would later be correctly counted.

Today, voting is more about speed than getting it right. Most officials bury their head in fear we will lose confidence. Those wanting to speak do not because of the British term ‘jobsworth’… it’s not worth losing my job over.

One who spoke was California Secretary of State Deborah Bowen. She commissioned a university study after security complaints in their $450 million worth of new touch screen voting machines. The study found serious security flaws in voting systems created by Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S and Hart InterCivic. All failed her 2007 security audit. Too, they are a hackers dream, so much so that the full report could not be issued for fear of placing a complete back-door entry system into hackers’ hands.

Ms. Bowen ordered changes that angered County officials, machine vendors and workers groaned at the extension of an already brutally long election day. She was awarded (along with Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner of Ohio, who worked to clean up Ohio’s flawed system) the 2008 John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award for fighting to ensure vote integrity.

Said Ms. Bowen in her speech, “I would rather be greeted with cynicism and criticism… than to live with the certain knowledge that my actions, or failure to act, did not come from a deep place of justice and integrity.”

We have a confrontational system. Fundamental fears of public employees being brought into question, against the zealous pursuit of fraud by those making this their life’s calling. Under such scrutiny, no one could ever pass muster, so tension, charges and counter-charges build exponentially.

Am I Pollyanna or Rodney (“why can’t we all just get along?”) King suggesting the two sides work together free from confrontation? Maybe and such a place does exist. Northern California’s Humboldt County’s biggest neighbouring city is northward in Oregon. San Francisco is five hours to the south. 45,000 people live there and Carolyn Crnich is County Clerk and Elections Director.

Said Carolyn, “this was a ‘monster under the bed’ issue.” We’d heard so much about the possibilities for hacking. We’d never seen it and our County could not possibly swing a national election, Nonetheless I wanted it to be right and there were others here who felt the same way.”

That’s a good politician’s answer. So enter Kevin Collins, local concerned citizen and commercial fisherman. He’d read a few articles and saw that Humboldt County was switching to Diebold touch screen machines. Based on what he’d read, “that seemed like a bad idea,” said Kevin. “I was lucky I had county officials willing to listen to someone they didn’t know from Adam. When I read we would lose a perfectly valid paper ballot, another fisherman and I went to the Board of Supervisors. They were receptive and pointed us in the direction of the registrar. We approached her and did the best we could to lobby. She was certain scan balloting was as safe as you could get.”

She did though point them to Carolyn. “She was very welcoming” said Kevin. “We told her we have a functioning system people have faith in and there’s all kind of reasons not to go to touch screens. Carolyn was open to the idea.”

Back in 2003, Carolyn was debating to attend a conference sponsored by sceptics of the touch screen movement. California, unlike other states, does not mandate which machines a county should use. She came back from that conference, shelved the Diebold proposal and stayed with paper ballots.

Said Kevin, “she really understood our concerns” and asked “how can we make the system work better?”

Said Carolyn, “people said the sky is falling and there were some who came and we together asked: how do we prevent the sky from falling?”

Their joint question was what if every person owning a computer could view an image of every ballot cast? They could then see the same results the County sees from the optical scan units and count them in any way they wanted: by hand, by precinct, by candidate… all of them?

Said Carolyn, “by offering the raw data it could inspire others to develop an open source solution to speed counting online, in person or otherwise. We wanted something that was free-standing and not connected to our certified election system. The more people look at results, the better it is for us. I would think the vendors, assuming they are open and honest, would be interested and line up behind us. I think though that they were very nervous about it.”

Said Kevin, “now anyone can download the entire last election’s results from here. (http://hum.dreamhosters.com/etp/) 23,000 total ballots were cast countywide, so this gave us a good sample.”

Said Carolyn, “we maintained such high security around the ballots it took more time than the scanning. We hovered so much to ensure transparency and to re-assure everyone there weren’t ‘aliens in the supply room.’ ”

denis-campbell.gifSaid Carolyn, “If anyone has counted those ballots and found a mistake, they have not made me aware of it. And there was no reaction from Diebold, even though it shows the system worked fine.”

When I asked her if she was afraid of personal attack? Her answer was “I think, no… rather than protect myself I’m just trying to stay one step ahead.”

She finally said, “in this work, you’re damned if you do or you don’t.”

Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?

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Published by the LA Progressive on September 21, 2008
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About Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell is a US journalist and entrepreneur based in the United Kingdom . He is Editor-in-Chief of UKProgressive.co.uk, a frequent BBC political and business contributor, writes for publications around the globe and is a partner in Target Point Ltd a business innovation consultancy bringing examples of the best practices from the recent campaign to businesses and campaigns.