Guardian of the Ballot Box | The Nation


Guardian of the Ballot Box

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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.

On the wall of his office in downtown Tallahassee, Ion Sancho, the county supervisor of elections, has a large aerial photograph of the state Capitol and surrounding buildings taken during the thirty-six-day battle for Florida that followed the 2000 presidential election. It's one of those photographs that become more revealing the closer you look. Lined up on the western side of the Capitol are the television trucks that took up their positions on the morning after the election--directly in front of then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris's ground-floor office windows--and that, by Thanksgiving, appeared to have become a permanent part of the landscape.

What the occupants of those trucks couldn't see, but what Sancho now points out with the morbid enthusiasm of a tour guide at Dallas's Dealey Plaza, was the daily route taken by Harris's secret Republican Party minder, a lawyer and lobbyist called Mac Stipanovich, who sat with her throughout the ballot battle and guided her every move so they could, in his words, "bring this election in for a landing." Stipanovich, as Sancho shows me, parked in a lot on the other side of the Capitol and then took an underground passageway beneath the building so the media could not see him come and go.

On the roofs of two adjacent buildings, Tallahassee's City Hall and a State Senate office complex, black-clad police snipers are clearly visible. "Just in case those pesky voters got out of hand in their demands to have their votes counted," Sancho comments sardonically. Curiously, their guns are pointing not at the Republican-controlled state legislature, or even at the streets, but rather at the State Supreme Court, six of whose seven members at the time were Democratic appointees. The court's rulings in favor of full manual recounts in contested southern Florida counties provided Al Gore with his strongest lifeline in the closing stages of the electoral battle and were consequently denounced as intolerable partisan interference by armies of lawyers and spokesmen for the Bush campaign.

These days, the Florida establishment's guns are pointing--metaphorically, anyway--at Sancho himself. The issue is not that he is a Democrat in a GOP-controlled state. On the contrary, as a conscientious election administrator he keeps himself rigorously above the partisan fray. The problem, for Governor Jeb Bush's administration, is that Sancho is one of the few election supervisors who actually takes his job and his civic responsibility seriously. And that has put him front and center in the battle for fair elections--not only in Florida but across the entire country.

Sancho believes the voters deserve nothing less than a reliable, transparent and publicly accountable electoral system. He is deeply suspicious of turning the process over to a small handful of private voting-machine manufacturers whose products have been shown time and again--most recently in studies issued by Princeton and New York University's Brennan Center for Justice--to be poorly programmed, riddled with security holes and vulnerable to both uncorrectable error and undetectable foul play. "Why is making something open and transparent to citizens such an anathema?" he asks. "Unless you have a guilty conscience, you should have nothing to hide."

Rather than paperless electronic machines, which he refers to as "faith-based voting," his mainstay is a system of optically scanned paper ballots that are carefully audited after each election to make sure the machines are working properly. Unlike the vast majority of election supervisors, who are career administrators (many of them without the smarts or the ambition to work in a more highly prized area of local government), Sancho came to his job as a seasoned public policy analyst determined to fix the system because he had himself been the victim of malfunctioning voting machines during an unsuccessful run for local office in 1986. And fix it he did. In 2000, while voting machines were malfunctioning all over the state, Sancho and his optically scanned ballots in Leon County registered an error rate of 0.18 percent. (Neighboring Gadsden County, by contrast, had an error rate of more than 12 percent.) "It was our smoothest election ever," Sancho recalls--and it earned his staff the honorary title of "heroes of democracy" from a grateful county board of commissioners.

That gratitude has worn distinctly thin in the six years since, not because Sancho has changed but because the field of electoral reform has become poisoned by partisan politics and overcozy alliances between election administrators and voting-machine manufacturers. One senses, reading the official statements and correspondence concerning Sancho, a bafflement bordering on indignation that he can't be more like other supervisors--content to buy the machinery he's told to buy, keep everything behind closed doors and declare every election to be an unqualified success without actually going through the few audit mechanisms that the new generation of e-voting machines permits.

Instead, Sancho has become an increasingly vocal critic of lawmakers, in Florida and other states, who have sought to make it harder for certain categories of voters to register and get to the polls, through legally controversial ID laws and other means; who have sought to keep the election process away from the eyes of domestic and international observers; and who have made meaningful recounts all but impossible. He has argued vigorously against electronic touch-screen machines, which the state and the voting-machine companies have been promoting hard since the punch-card debacle of 2000. In short, he has pushed for greater openness, while they have tried to push the process ever further from public scrutiny. And that has turned him into something of a lightning rod, and a target.

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