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National Issues

Can You Count on Voting Machines? PDF  | Print |  Email
General Topics
By Clive Thompson   
January 05, 2008

For a while, it had looked as if things would go smoothly for the Board of Elections office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. About 200,000 voters had trooped out on the first Tuesday in November for the lightly attended local elections, tapping their choices onto the county’s 5,729 touch-screen voting machines. The elections staff had collected electronic copies of the votes on memory cards and taken them to the main office, where dozens of workers inside a secure, glass-encased room fed them into the “GEMS server,” a gleaming silver Dell desktop computer that tallies the votes.


Then at 10 p.m., the server suddenly froze up and stopped counting votes. Cuyahoga County technicians clustered around the computer, debating what to do. A young, business-suited employee from Diebold — the company that makes the voting machines used in Cuyahoga — peered into the screen and pecked at the keyboard. No one could figure out what was wrong. So, like anyone faced with a misbehaving computer, they simply turned it off and on again. Voilŕ: It started working — until an hour later, when it crashed a second time. Again, they rebooted. By the wee hours, the server mystery still hadn’t been solved.


Worse was yet to come. When the votes were finally tallied the next day, 10 races were so close that they needed to be recounted. But when Platten went to retrieve paper copies of each vote — generated by the Diebold machines as they worked — she discovered that so many printers had jammed that 20 percent of the machines involved in the recounted races lacked paper copies of some of the votes. They weren’t lost, technically speaking; Platten could hit “print” and a machine would generate a replacement copy. But she had no way of proving that these replacements were, indeed, what the voters had voted. She could only hope the machines had worked correctly.


As the primaries start in New Hampshire this week and roll on through the next few months, the erratic behavior of voting technology will once again find itself under a microscope. In the last three election cycles, touch-screen machines have become one of the most mysterious and divisive elements in modern electoral politics. Introduced after the 2000 hanging-chad debacle, the machines were originally intended to add clarity to election results. But in hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite: they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices “flip” from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish. (In the 80-person town of Waldenburg, Ark., touch-screen machines tallied zero votes for one mayoral candidate in 2006 — even though he’s pretty sure he voted for himself.) Most famously, in the November 2006 Congressional election in Sarasota, Fla., touch-screen machines recorded an 18,000-person “undervote” for a race decided by fewer than 400 votes.


The earliest critiques of digital voting booths came from the fringe — disgruntled citizens and scared-senseless computer geeks — but the fears have now risen to the highest levels of government. One by one, states are renouncing the use of touch-screen voting machines. California and Florida decided to get rid of their electronic voting machines last spring, and last month, Colorado decertified about half of its touch-screen devices. Also last month, Jennifer Brunner, the Ohio secretary of state, released a report in the wake of the Cuyahoga crashes arguing that touch-screens “may jeopardize the integrity of the voting process.” She was so worried she is now forcing Cuyahoga to scrap its touch-screen machines and go back to paper-based voting — before the Ohio primary, scheduled for March 4. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat of Florida, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, have even sponsored a bill that would ban the use of touch-screen machines across the country by 2012.


Read the Entire Article at The New York Times


 


Voting Activists Urge Presidential Candidates to Reject Unverifiable Primaries PDF  | Print |  Email
General Topics
By Iowans for Voting Integrity   
January 01, 2008

South Carolina's Voting System Causes Particular Concern

A group of state-based civic organizations has urged Presidential candidates to call for paper ballots in all 2008 primary elections.


In a letter sent to the major Democratic and Republican candidates last week, the groups Georgians for Verified Voting, Iowans for Voting Integrity, the North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting, and the South Carolina Progressive Network offered evidence of the unreliability of paperless electronic voting systems, and expressed special concern about the paperless machines to be used statewide in South Carolina's Presidential primaries on January 19 and January 26 (letter attached).

 

“Many of the world's best computer scientists have concluded that paperless e-voting systems are vulnerable to error and fraud,” said  Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network.  Last year, a task force that included Howard Schmidt, former chief security officer of Microsoft, called strongly for voter-verified paper records of each  vote cast.   Counties in 14 states stand ready to use paperless electronic systems in their primaries (see attachment “Paperless Primary States”).

 

South Carolina is of particular concern because of its early position in the front-loaded primary calendar, and because the entire state uses a discredited paperless touch screen system, the ES&S iVotronic.  A review ordered by Ohio's top election offical and published December 14 found found “critical security vulnerabilities” in the iVotronic.  Among the problems was a finding that the iVotronic can be manipulated by a person with a magnet and a personal digital assistant. After the Ohio report was published,  Edward Felten, head of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, wrote that the iVotronic is  “too risky to use” in elections. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has recommended scrapping all touch screens, including the iVotronic. Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman decertified the iVotronic on December 17, and also wants to switch his state to a paper ballot system for the November election.

 

“South Carolina has the Ford Pinto of voting systems, “said Bursey.

 

Read more...
Voting Rights Activists Win Big Cases in Florida and Arizona PDF  | Print |  Email
Voting Rights
By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet   
December 21, 2007

Arizona: Activists move closer to proving electronic vote count theft.

Florida: A law disenfranchising thousands of new voters is blocked.

 

This article was posted at AlterNet and is reposted here with permission of the author.

 

A series of court decisions this week supporting voting rights advocates in Florida and Arizona may bode well for more open and accountable elections in 2008.

 

That is because the cases involve major trend-setting aspects of elections: whether you can block new laws that disenfranchise thousands of new voters because of errors in state databases, and whether you can catch partisans who alter electronic vote counts. In both instances, courts sided with voting rights advocates against state and local officials.

 

The decisions are part of a pattern of recent rulings where draconian state election laws passed immediately after the 2004 election are being overturned. Those laws, passed by Republican-controlled legislatures to stop "voter fraud," or people impersonating other voters, affected voter registration drives and voter ID requirements. The other piece of this pattern is many states, and now a court in Arizona, are demanding new levels of accountability in paperless electronic voting systems.

 

"I'm optimistic," said Michael Slater of Project Vote, a national, nonpartisan voter registration and voting rights organization. "If you look at what's happening across the country, I see gains ... It's a story that's not being told."

Read more...
No Barking in the Night About the FEC PDF  | Print |  Email
Federal Election Commission (FEC)
By Bob Bauer   
December 20, 2007

This article was posted on Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

 

The Federal Election Commission, a six member body (now under five in number), may pass shortly, and for all practical purposes, out of existence, it now appearing that the Senate cannot agree on the pending nominations.  But another six member body may soon be born,  to enforce not the campaign finance laws but the House ethics code.  A task force established by the Speaker has now produced its recommendations, and this is the surprise of the season: the reform community has much to say about the ethics process and is virtually silent on the troubles of the FEC.

 

Or perhaps it is not as surprising as all that. The reform community has decided that the FEC, as currently constituted, is not worth the bother.  Not even the prospect  of the federal campaign finance law left unenforced in the middle of an election cycle has moved the reformers to protest.  In this sense, the reformers have made common cause with Mitch McConnell, each wishing to allow the FEC’s demise to speak loudly to their larger points. The reform community wants to make it clear that the FEC is beyond salvation and that the time has come to consider alternatives.  McConnell would go farther and argue that neither this agency nor a more “effective” or “powerful” version is needed or a force for good.  They agree, it seems, on the proposition of most immediate import, which is that they can do without this agency, at this time.

 

The reformers have now turned their attention to the proposal to establish an independent Office of Congressional Ethics to supplement ethics enforcement.  Their grievance, or the one they have chosen to highlight, is that the Office will not have independent authority to issue subpoenas.  Their fear (or argument) is that without this investigative authority, the Office will not be taken seriously. Witnesses will “stonewall”; investigations will be superficial; wrongdoing will go unaddressed.  Reform organizations would prefer a process that is more like a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, Congress’ own enforcement of its rules: an independent Director rather than Board decision-making, an independent staff, and independent subpoea power.  Congress would be left with a formal role, more or less relegated to passing on the independent Board’s recommendations at the end of the process and under much pressure to do as the Office asked or to explain, defensively, why it would not.

Read more...
Voter ID in HAVA and The Case for Preemption PDF  | Print |  Email
Voting Rights
By Bob Bauer   
December 13, 2007

This article was posted on Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

 

The voter identification controversy before the Court is not one of a kind, and the State of Indiana cannot aspire to be the sole agent for settling the question in federal elections. Congress, of course, took on this very issue in negotiating through partisan differences to produce the Help American Vote Act.  There it made certain decisions, very explicitly, about photo voter identification requirements and these stand in opposition to the choices later made by Indiana.

Senators Feinstein and Representatives Brady and Lofgren laid this preemption claim before the Supreme Court in a brief filed on their behalf by the Center for Public Integrity, along with the undersigned and other of his colleagues.Now the Department of Justice, in its brief siding with Indiana, closes its brief with a rebuttal, disputing that states’ hands are at all tied in federal elections by Congress’ design of HAVA.


In short, as the Department would have it, all of Congress’ negotiations, toward the compromise painstakingly worked out across partisan divisions, count for nothing.

 

The  preemption argument is not fancy, nor, given the statutory language and history, need it be. Congress considered photo identification requirements as one of the measures promoted by those of its Members, principally in  the Republican Party, preoccupied with building in defenses against fraud.  This was the difference in emphasis and approach that shaped the course of negotiation and debate over HAVA: enfranchisement v. protections against fraud.  Photo identification was one of those protections, unambiguously present in the debate and among the options specifically entertained by the Congress.  And in the end, only one such requirement, for one class of voters, was adopted: first time voters who registered by mail would have to present photo ID, or, in the alternative, other forms of identifications such as bank statements or utility bills.

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EAC Releases 2006 Election Day Survey Results PDF  | Print |  Email
Election Assistance Commission (EAC)
By EAC Media Release   
December 11, 2007

The United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) today voted to adopt the 2006 Election Day Survey, the largest and most comprehensive survey on election administration ever conducted by a U.S. governmental organization.  The commissioners directed EAC staff to edit the presented document for grammar and style and the final survey is available here.

"The report tells us a great deal about voting and elections practices throughout the country," said EAC Chair Donetta Davidson. "EAC thanks the thousands of election officials throughout the country who provided data for this survey. The American people and the cause of democracy will benefit from their participation."

This is the second time that EAC has collected statistics from the States regarding election practices and voting. The report builds and expands on EAC’s 2004 survey through the use of a Web-based survey. The survey provides critical statistics on voter registration and turnout, voting equipment and locations, and other information about the voting process.

Read more...
Rep. Holt To Offer New Election Reform Proposal PDF  | Print |  Email
Federal Legislation
By Michael Martinez, National Journal Tech Daily   
December 10, 2007

This article appeared in National Journal Tech Daily and is reposted here with permission of the author.


The House Democrat behind a stalled election overhaul bill is drafting an alternative proposal aimed at preventing chaos from occurring at the polls next year.

 

Rush Holt of New Jersey is prepared to offer an "opt in" measure to give states an opportunity to upgrade their e-voting systems in time for the presidential election. The details of the plan are still being finalized.

 

Holt is the author of a bill, H.R. 811, that would mandate the nationwide adoption of e-voting machines that produce paper trails. He has introduced similar bills multiple times, none of which have reached the House floor.

 

The House Administration Committee approved the current legislation in the spring. But the bill has been stalled as supporters work to settle disputes about funding and whether to force the adoption of machines that are less accessible for disabled voters.

Read more...
"Needing" The FEC--And Why.... PDF  | Print |  Email
Federal Election Commission (FEC)
By Bob Bauer   
December 10, 2007

This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and reposted here with permission of the author.

 

The Washington Post, faced with the choice, would put aside appointment controversies and keep the FEC in operating condition for this coming election year.  It is not warm toward Commissioner Von Spakovsky but it can abide another term for him if this is needed to avoid, in effect, closing the agency. And while the paper is troubled by Von Spakovsky’s “over the top” rhetoric on enforcement issues and reform positions, it does not find in him the “utter hostility” to the law that its believes Brad Smith, whose appointment the Post opposed, to have displayed.

 

This is an interesting editorial.  It will ruin the breakfasts of Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center and others who have put up furious and tireless resistance to the Von Spakovsky appointment.  But the Post position is as much a reflection on the FEC and the campaign laws as it is about Von Spakovsky: it is a meditation on “hostility” to the campaign finance laws, on the expectations for an agency with this charge and these powers, and on the politics of campaign finance enforcement.  It explains why, for the Post and other reform supporters, the FEC can be both “toothless”—a way of saying “useless”—and also, mysteriously, so badly needed.

 

So it goes with the FEC as beheld by its reform critics: can’t love it, can’t  live without it.  The Post speaks sympathetically of the view that “the FEC is a toothless agency in need of an overhaul.”  The Post does not, for all that, wish to see the agency “crippled”: it is a “referee”, needed fairly urgently “in a critical election year”.   What is that need, if the agency is so weak: why, as the Post says, is “a flawed FEC better than no FEC at all”?

Read more...
The FEC On its Sick(Death?) Bed PDF  | Print |  Email
Federal Election Commission (FEC)
By Bob Bauer   
December 04, 2007

This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

 

December has come, and the Federal Election Commission, like a tree stripped of its leaves in the hard winter chill, is about to shed Commissioners as recess appointments expire and new Commissioners are not confirmed.  What will be left standing will be the simulacrum of an agency: it will maintain its physical address and its staff,  two Commissioners will remain gamely at their posts, but it will not have the power, which only four Commissioners may collectively exercise, to produce a rule or Advisory Opinion, or to enforce the law. 

 

Congress is at an impasse over nominations.  Politics is the most visible source of the agency's troubles on the Hill.  More deeply, however,  indifference in some quarters and hostility in others have taken their toll.  My colleague Brian Svoboda has said, wisely, that it seems that "nobody seems to really need it enough" to care that it is about to fade away, effectively shut down.  Presidential candidates who depend on matching funds may have reason for concern; but perhaps this problem, largely a ministerial one, might be fixed more or less in isolation,  without a more structured, full-scale commitment to the agency's resuscitation.

Read more...
EAC Report Now on EAC Website; Has Been Posted on Eagleton Site PDF  | Print |  Email
Election Assistance Commission (EAC)
By Warren Stewart, Verified Voting Foundation   
December 04, 2007
Following up on the post at Rick Hasen's Election Law Blog that I cross-posted here yesterday about a report on provisional voting commissioned by the EAC but not appearing on the EAC website, Rick and I received the following email from Jeannie Layson of the EAC (reprinted here with permission):
    Per your posts today, just wanted to let you know that I have added these materials to our FOIA Reading Room here. I will add other links to the material in other places on the site, but I wanted to let you know that it is immediately available. The EAC has been providing the draft report to anyone who asked for it, but it also should have been posted in the Reading Room. (The draft report was presented in May 2006 at a Standards Board meeting that was open to the public.) The web site is my responsibility, so your criticism should be directed at me for this oversight, not the EAC. For your information, this material has been available on Eagleton's website for quite some time. However, it should have been posted on our site as well. Please don't hesitate to contact me in the future if you are looking for documents or materials or have questions or concerns about the EAC web site -- I'd be glad to assist you. Thank you for your consideration in this matter, and call me if you have any questions.
Rick had not asked the EAC for the document, but was told by someone else that the material was not provided when requested. In any case, it is good to see that this material is now available on the EAC website and open to scrutiny.
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