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The Coming Ballot Meltdown | The Nation

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The Coming Ballot Meltdown

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The story of Ohio's adoption of new voting technology and the mess it is creating is in many ways typical of the overhasty and shockingly underregulated rush across the country to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). But Ohio has also followed its own peculiar trajectory, teaching us above all how difficult it is to prevent the elemental viciousness of two-party politics from compromising the integrity and safety of our voting systems.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Andrew Gumbel
Andrew Gumbel is the author of Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (Nation...

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2008 will go down as a year activists were able to keep a rotten electoral system honest.

It's clear that efforts to protect voters rights are working this time--in Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

Back in 2003 Ohio was admirably skeptical about the lure of computer voting--even though the parent company of Diebold Election Systems was based in Ohio and its chief executive, Wally O'Dell, was a prominent campaign contributor to the state and national Republican Party. O'Dell notoriously wrote a fundraising letter in August 2003 declaring himself "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." If this was some dark hint that Diebold intended to collude with the Republicans in stealing the 2004 election--something that, in retrospect, seems a lot more doubtful than many voting rights activists feared at the time--Ohio's Republican establishment was not especially inclined to play ball. The source code for Diebold's AccuVote-TS touch-screen system had been left lying around on an open Internet site and was scrutinized by a team of top-flight computer scientists from Rice and Johns Hopkins universities, who found it to be riddled with security flaws and basic programming errors. Ken Blackwell decided to order a comprehensive technical review of all touch-screen voting systems and subsequently decided to postpone a major statewide buy of electronic machines until after the 2004 election. The Republican-dominated state legislature, meanwhile, proved remarkably receptive to arguments in favor of fitting the touch screens with a voter-verified paper audit trail so their results could be independently verified in a close or contested election. A state law mandating a paper trail was passed in early 2004.

That cautious, consensus-oriented approach evaporated, however, in the heat of the 2004 campaign season. A state planning committee on HAVA implementation that had met several times was never invited to convene again, despite a barrage of new questions raised across the country about the integrity of electronic touch-screen and tabulation systems being sold by Diebold and its principal rivals, Election Systems and Software (ES&S) and Sequoia. Right after the 2004 election, Governor Taft signed a law increasing the limit on campaign contributions by individuals or political action committees from $2,500 to $10,000--a move widely seen as benefiting Republicans more than Democrats. Around the same time, Blackwell compounded the conflict-of-interest issue by buying himself just under $10,000 of Diebold stock. (He later sold, at a loss, after his shareholding became public.) For several months last year and stretching into this, the Republican state legislature expended its energies on mandating an ID requirement at polling stations. At best this was an unnecessary solution to a nonexistent problem, since there was no evidence of significant ballot fraud at the individual voter level; at worst it was another baldly partisan maneuver, because the 12 percent of the adult population without driver's licenses, the most readily available form of government ID, tend to be poor, elderly or both, and thus likely to lean Democrat.

The law that finally enshrined the voter-ID requirement, House Bill 3, contained another couple of nasty surprises: a big jump in the cost of petitioning for a manual recount, from $100 per precinct to $500 per precinct, and the lifting of a previous requirement that counties use the independent paper trail to conduct random audits of their touch-screen machinery after every election. In other words, Ohio--like many other states--has now become a recount-hostile environment with greatly diminished accountability all around. Since paperless electronic system votes are almost impossible to verify without recourse to the paper trail, this is a truly chilling development.

What the Republicans have created is, in effect, a system where they have multiple tools to deter their opponents from casting ballots in the first place--through the voter-ID requirement, the strict rules on provisional balloting and so on--and then making the vote count itself so opaque as to be beyond redress. The lack of transparency is a matter of bureaucratic convenience as well as political conniving: County boards of elections are generally delighted to be able to spend state and federal dollars on shiny new computer systems that do all the tricky work of vote tabulation by themselves, that don't entail large paper orders or long-term ballot storage requirements and that obviate the pain, inconvenience and extra cost of conducting recounts. Under the HAVA rules counties have the option of purchasing much cheaper, manually recountable paper-based systems, tabulated by optical scanners. Many Ohio counties have shied away from this alternative, however, because they think it is trickier to operate and requires more intensive poll-worker training. HAVA also requires at least one terminal per precinct for the use of disabled voters, which basically means a touch-screen machine. Rather than buy two separate systems, many counties prefer to go with just one.

If counties think that touch screens are somehow the easier option, though, they're kidding themselves. Poll workers may find it easy to show voters how to use the machines when they're working, but if anything goes wrong workers are likely to be several orders of magnitude more clueless about fixing the problem. Computerized systems also entail huge hidden costs, from maintenance to security (even when the terminals are in storage) to software upgrades. Several Ohio counties have been appalled at the budget overruns they are already facing, and there is a naïveté all around, from Congress on down, about the kind of commitment these machines entail. "If the federal government thinks it can give onetime-only grants, it is wrong," said Dan Tokaji, an election law specialist at Ohio State University's Moritz Law School, who is a cautious supporter of electronic systems, at least in principle. "There needs to be ongoing federal attention." Based on the government's behavior so far--its failure to fund HAVA fully or to meet its own deadline, its failure to establish a federal regulatory body with any teeth, its failure to streamline rules on any aspect of conducting elections, leaving everything up to states and counties--nobody should hold their breath.

Another reason to regard Ohio as a bellwether of the nation's electoral health is the fact that its political complexion is changing fast--perhaps faster than any other state's. For twelve years the Republicans have had the run of the place, a length of tenure more or less guaranteed to spawn corruption, regardless of the party in power. The ethical violations, insalubrious associations and compromised integrity of Governor Taft, Representative Bob Ney and others have received widespread attention in the national press. Perhaps less well understood is that, historically speaking, there is no climate more susceptible to electoral malfeasance than one where a single party is in power and in a position to manipulate the rules to its advantage. If a race is also close and the stakes are high, as they were in 2004, then dirty electioneering is more or less a given.

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