By Julie Penny
Those of you who have followed my columns, particularly over the last five years, know I have reported several times on the many pitfalls and disasters caused by electronic voting and electronic poll-books. That I’ve spoken against the privatization of our voting systems to companies that we cannot exercise true accountability over. Reported on judges that have ruled against a candidate’s independent computer experts being able to inspect the machines and the memory cards that program and count the votes in close elections, or those that produce fishy results, because they are the “intellectual property” of the owners of said machines. These instances of disaster are culled from news reports from all over the US and by investigations by Congress and by election officials themselves who’ve compiled reports on mind-bending snafus and malfeasance. They are also culled from the contents of lawsuits brought by individuals or by municipalities against vendors, and from cases in which election officials have been indicted for election fraud and tampering with electronic voting machines; and from whistleblowers within the industry who speak out.
Despite our druthers to keep them, our lever voting machines are now history. The federal government has imposed its will on us under the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Or, as I call it, the Hinder America Vote Act. It’s proved to be the biggest boondoggle and taxpayer money give-away to come down the pike. Especially galling in these perilous financial times. Under HAVA, the federal government has spent billions on these systems. They are a high maintenance operation in every aspect and will dun New Yorkers for hundreds of millions more as time goes by.
Though under federal law the allowable “maximum” legal error rate for electronic machines is 1 error in 10,000,000 ballot lines (0.00001%), in actuality, since their inception, all brands of these electronic machines have been racking up huge error rates in tabulating the vote during elections (including the optical scanners of the type that we’ll be using), some as high as 29.49%! Yet, our government does nothing about it. It doesn’t enforce the 0.00001% rule. Why?
To learn about the problems, irregularities, malfunctions, error rates and the costliness to buy, operate, store, and maintain these systems, and to deal with recalcitrant vendors, go to: http://www.votersunite.org. Besides us voting integrity organizations and watchdogs, Boards of Election rely on a lot of the information—constructive and essential—that VotersUnite.org catalogues and provides.
Those of us who went to the polls on Tuesday, primary day, September 14, were using Dominion’s ImageCast Optical Scan Voting System. When Nassau County’s BOE had received theirs in 2008, they found problems with 85% of them with “substantial operational flaws that render them unusable or require major repairs.” They also had major security flaws. Nassau returned them for repairs. At the time, the Suffolk BOE said their problems were less in comparison to Nassau’s. At this writing, I assume things have been rectified but I don’t know what their current error rate is.
A handy website to familiarize yourself with the ImageCast machines we’ll be using again in November is http://www.vote-ny.com. They have step-by-step videos of the voting process. But generally, this is how they work:
After signing the poll book, a voter will be given a pre-printed ballot containing all the candidates and contests. The ballot will be laid out like what we are used to seeing in the old lever voting booths so we’ll have a level of familiarity when looking at it. You’ll be directed to a privacy booth or area where you can mark your ballot using a special marking pen that is provided. You must fill in completely the oval next to your choice. Do not mark it with a “check mark” or an “X.” Do not make any stray marks on the ballot or the machine will be unable to read the ballot.
When you complete marking the ballot, place it into a “privacy sleeve” provided and take it to the ImageCast machine to be scanned.
The ImageCast will automatically draw your ballot out of the privacy sleeve, read the ballot and drop it into a locked box below the tabulator. Make sure to wait to see that your vote has been recorded before returning the privacy sleeve back to the poll inspector waiting nearby.
At the end of the night, each election district does a print out of the votes scanned by their optical scanner machine. This “poll tape” is then signed by each of the poll workers. After the poll closes, the memory cards and poll tapes are often transported to headquarters through a series of middlepersons at collecting depots. As there are many a slip between the cup and the lip, the most accurate reading of the poll tapes is at their election districts before they start on their journeys. In this respect, around the country, a duplicate print-out of the voting results is made that’s posted on the door of the polling place the night of the election, visible for the public to inspect, photograph or videotape. I will learn what Suffolk’s policy is and will report back to you before the November election. It’s a tool the public has to see if later discrepancies occur.
In previous elections around the country—and in a recent primary on August 5, 2010, in Tennessee where lawsuits are pending by 10 candidates for “massive voting irregularities” and “improprieties,” some of the “original” signed poll tapes were found in the garbage in black trash bags. This has been a longstanding and widespread problem as memorably filmed in the Emmy-nominated investigative documentary, “Hacking Democracy” that was shown on HBO in 2006. At these offending districts, Freedom of Information requests to view the original polling tapes were met with stonewalling, and photocopies were offered for viewing rather than the original polling tapes themselves. As has now happened in Tennessee, candidates and Bev Harris and her investigative team from Black Box Voting. org (http://www.blackboxvoting.org) have been stonewalled. When finally allowed to take a look at only 20% of the poll tapes, which the Black Box Voting team found to be in total disarray, the officials shut down any further inspections.
Will your vote be counted as it was cast? Who knows? On election night only the machines do the counting, not humans. Only a miniscule percentage of the ballots at some supposedly “randomly chosen” election districts will be audited by counting the ballots by a human hand. Welcome to faith based voting.
“Dominion Voting” is a Canadian company that owns the ImageCast machines we’ll be voting with. If, around the state, any race gets contested—say any for a Congressional seat—and the losing candidate would like to subject the memory cards and suspect machines to an independent review by computer scientists and experts, he or she couldn’t do that, as it’s a “trade secret” belonging to Dominion, or more properly to a Venuzuelan company, “Smartmatic.” Not only that, but on another front, one wonders why our government is allowing the consolidation of several e-voting companies into one. Anti-trust anyone?
ImageCast optical scanners were originally a Sequoia product. Dominion, on the heels of purchasing “ES & S,” a company that bought “Premier” formerly known as “Diebold,” went on to acquire “Sequoia” whose parent company is “Smartmatic” the Venezuelan-based company with ties to Hugo Chavez’ government. Dominion (as well as Sequoia before them) misled the “Federal Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States,” trying to make them think that Smartmatic no longer owns the Intellectual Property (IP) of Sequoia and by extension Dominion who purchased Sequoia. It does. We’ll be voting with machines and memory cards solely under the control of foreign governments—Canadian and Venezuelan. That’s a double kick in the teeth. If they wanted to, they could program the memory cards to the candidates of their liking and we’d never be the wiser. Computer experts like Harri Hurtsi and those at Princeton and Berkeley have demonstrated how easily this is done—and without leaving a trace.
The bedrock of our freedom, our democracy, lies in our ability to vote in elections. “And if election results can’t be verified by the public, we don’t know if we are free.” That secret, proprietary software is used to count the vote in our nation’s electronic voting systems is antithetical to a democracy. It’s corporate controlled and shielded from public scrutiny by trade secret laws. Under this scenario no one can be guaranteed that the vote they cast is being counted as was cast.
Last October (2009), the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that citizens must be able to verify election results, reliably, and without any specialized knowledge about voting machines. Since that standard can’t be achieved with electronic voting, the High Court banned electronic voting in Germany, ruling it “unconstitutional.” Germany has now reverted to properly administered hand-counts of paper ballots. In this, Germany joins Ireland, the Netherlands, India and other nations who have jettisoned electronic voting and returned to paper ballots and hand counts. How come the Germans are so smart, and we so dumb?