Machine Politics

The voting reform called for after Florida 2000 hasn’t materialized.


The debacle in Florida in the 2000 presidential elections, with its butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and misplaced votes, spurred a call for reform of the voting system. But nine months ahead of the next presidential election, little has changed for the better.

In 2002 President Bush signed the “Help America Vote Act” with the avowed aim of restoring American confidence in the electoral system. “Every registered voter,” he said, “deserves to have confidence that the system is fair and elections are honest, that every vote is recorded, and that the rules are consistently applied.”

But according to a report released Thursday by the Election Reform Information Project, a non-partisan website providing news and analysis on election reform, only a few states have made significant changes to voting machines and registration processes in the last three years. The report says that reforms to the system will certainly not be in place by the 2004 presidential election, and the earliest voters will see major improvements is 2006. Kimball Brace, the president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm, said, “The changes that everybody wanted to happen just aren’t happening. And it also raises the possibility that in a close election, we get another Florida-type situation.”

Among the major findings of the Election Reform Information Project: punch cards will still be used in some jurisdictions in 22 states despite encouragement to retire the equipment; and statewide registration databases, which should eliminate the potential for fraud and for voters mistakenly being denied the chance to vote, are still a few years off.

Bush’s 2002 bill authorized
$3.9 billion in federal money to improve the electoral system, but so far only $650 million of it has been distributed to states. Arkansas, Ohio, and at least 10 other states decided not to change their punch-card and lever machines until after the presidential election because of uncertainty about both federal funding and equipment standards.

The general trend is away from the antiquated punch cards that caused so much grief in Florida and toward electronic voting machines. But these have problems of their own. One recent instance occurred, fittingly enough, in Florida, just a few weeks ago. In a special election for a state House seat, touch-screen machines reported 137 blank ballots. The margin of victory was only 12 votes. The second-place finisher charged that faulty machines might have cost him the election. The New York Times ran a long editorial last weekend on the problems of electronic voting machines:

“An accurate count of the votes cast is the sine qua non of a democracy, but one that continues to elude us. As now-discredited punch-card machines are being abandoned, there has been a shift to electronic voting machines with serious reliability problems of their own. Many critics, including computer scientists, have been sounding the alarm: through the efforts of a hacker on the outside or a malicious programmer on the inside, or through purely technical errors, these machines could misreport the votes cast.”

One of the most oft-cited problems with electronic voting machines is that they don’t produce hard evidence of votes. Faye M. Anderson, writer and producer of Counting on Democracy, a documentary about the 2000 Florida presidential election writes in the The Miami Herald late last year:

“Election officials have since spent hundreds of millions of dollars on touch-screen voting systems whose performance has not restored voters’ confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. One reason: Electronic voting machines lack an auditable paper trail. This design flaw is particularly puzzling given that electronic transactions from ATMs to stores routinely provide a user-verified printout.Without a paper record, states are simply throwing money at the problem. In doing so, the chief beneficiaries of the Florida fiasco are the four voting-machine manufacturers that dominate the industry.”

Add to his picture allegations that voting machine companies are in cahoots with politicians. Mother Jones reported in its November/December 2003 issue that there are doubts about the legitimacy of some voting-machine companies:

“…the call of “trust us, we’re experts” took a blow this summer when the Cleveland Plain Dealer outted Diebold chief executive Walden O’Dell as a major GOP operative. In addition to hosting a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser at his Columbus, Ohio, home, ODell sent out solicitations boasting that he’s “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

Another debate has developed over a planned Internet-based voting system called SERVE (Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment) scheduled for use in the 2004 primary and general elections has courted controversy over security vulnerabilities. The system would be used by absentee voters from 50 counties in seven states. The opinion of four members of a 10-person peer review group is that the voting could be easily “hacked” and manipulated.

One expert that reviewed the system said: I think that a dedicated and experienced hacker could subvert the election rather easily.”

The New York Times sums up what’s at stake:

“Thomas Jefferson advised that “elective government” is “the best permanent corrective of the errors or abuses of those entrusted with power.” His faith in democracy was well placed, but for elective government to play this critical role, the elections must be inclusive and fair, and they must use machinery that works.”

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