Voting should be more secure this year
February 3, 2008
Some county voting registrars don’t like the reasons for it, but there’s good cause for California voters to feel pretty secure this year that their votes will be counted accurately.
For more than five years, since the advent of touch screen voting machines and DRE (direct recording electronic) vote-counting devices, voting integrity activists have contended that votes could be switched and election results flipped by tampering that leaves no trace.
As recently as this month’s New Hampshire primary, suspicions were voiced over the twin facts that Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton ran far stronger in counties where votes were counted on Diebold Accuvote optical scan machines than where paper ballots were counted by hand – and that rival Sen. Barack Obama ran worse where votes were tabulated electronically.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ran far better where votes were counted electronically and Texas Rep. Ron Paul did much worse. In two Diebold-counted precincts where Paul had known supporters, he received no official votes. Those results are not proof of chicanery, but they did raise some eyebrows.
Tests in Florida, Ohio and California have shown the Diebold machines to be hackable (because of the resulting negative publicity, that company, largest producer of electronic voting equipment, last year changed its name to Premier Election Systems).
So far, serious questions of this sort have been raised in only one California election ” the mid-2006 special election where Republican Brian Bilbray won the suburban San Diego congressional seat vacated by corruption-convicted Duke Cunningham.
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But questions have abounded in other states: In one Ohio precinct, more votes were counted in 2004 than there were registered voters. Republican President George W. Bush ran far stronger than four years earlier in normally Democratic areas. And Diebold’s longtime chairman also served as Bush’s Ohio campaign chief, promising in writing that “We will deliver Ohio.” To this day, no one knows if he meant to do that by honest get-out-the-vote efforts or by manipulating machines made is company.
Activists in 2006 visited a then-Diebold warehouse in Texas and filmed unprotected machines sitting around in areas where almost anyone could access them. There were questions about possible vote-flipping in Arkansas and Florida.
No one ever proved any election was electronically stolen, but confidence in the new machines eroded. Democrat Debra Bowen, promising to investigate the machines’ integrity, became California secretary of state with that as her most important campaign plank.
She followed up with a “top to bottom review” of all electronic voting systems in California. County voting registrars were not happy with results showing every model tested was corruptible. They’re still upset with new security requirements putting extra emphasis on paper trails and hand counts. For instance, they detest a rule requiring a manual tally of 10 percent of randomly selected precincts in any contest where the margin of victory is less than one-half of 1 percent.
In San Diego County, where the practice of “sleepovers” ” precinct workers taking voting machines home and storing them in closets or garages for days or weeks at a time ” was common until this year, Registrar Deborah Seiler is suing Bowen for
imposing that 10 percent hand count rule. Seiler claims the recount requirement would be too expensive for her office to conduct and might prevent her from performing her legal duty of completing an election canvass within 28 days of the Feb. 5 election.
That’s just the latest salvo from registrars, who have long insisted the machines they bought for hundreds of millions of dollars are just fine, even though some were not even certified by the state before they were bought.
Bowen’s tough new strictures seem almost mild, though, after another review of voting machines ordered this fall by new Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
“To put it in everyday terms, the tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as tampering with the paper audit trail connector or using a magnet and a personal digital assistant,” Brunner reported.
Another finding: Keys needed to access the inside of some DRE machines are “easily obtainable, which could expose many systems to tampering.”
One result is that Ohio will likely ban all touch screen machines before its late spring primary, switching to paper ballots counted by optical scan machines.
That’s even more draconian than Bowen’s California rules.
But Bowen led the way, and even though it may delay some vote counts into the day after the election or beyond, her rules ought to be minimize allegations of
corrupted elections this year.
So voters, whether at the polls or using absentee ballots, can feel reasonably sure after years of uncertainty and suspicion that their preferences will be counted accurately. Registrars may not like all this, in part because it makes them look foolish for investing in corruptible equipment, but if it makes voters once again trust the electoral system, all the trouble and arguing will have been worthwhile.