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Guardian of the Ballot Box | The Nation

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Guardian of the Ballot Box

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Recently Sancho threw his support behind a citizens' initiative in Sarasota County, which uses only touch screens, to impose a voter-verifiable paper ballot and a regime of independent random audits. The activists in Sarasota--the jurisdiction represented by Katherine Harris in Congress--appreciated his intervention, but he also sent the local election supervisor, Kathy Dent, into a blind fury. In a voice-mail message he happily played back for me, Dent told him she didn't appreciate his interference and suggested: "You stay in your little corner of the world and I'll stay in mine."

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.

Earlier this year the state and the big three voting-machine companies--Diebold, Sequoia and ES&S--went further in expressing their displeasure: They made a concerted effort to have Sancho removed from office, and very nearly succeeded. Here's what happened: Sancho had invited a Finnish computer security expert called Harri Hursti to use Leon County's voting machinery, made by Diebold, to test his contention that the tabulation software that keeps count of the optically scanned votes was vulnerable to manipulation. Several times in the summer and fall of 2005 Hursti managed to compromise the memory card, which controls the tabulation process, with what he said was a commercially available agricultural scanning device. Last December, in the last of his tests, Hursti conducted a mock election in which eight county workers were invited to pronounce on the ballot question: "Can the votes of this Diebold system be hacked using the memory card?" Six voted no and two voted yes. But when the results spat out of the tabulator they read seven yes and one no.

The obvious conclusion was that the machines were vulnerable to hacking by a corrupt county insider, or anyone else with access to the tabulation device. Worse still, the machines betrayed no evidence of tampering or malfunction, meaning that the hack was well-nigh undetectable barring a manual recount of the paper ballots. Sancho approached Diebold and asked the company to address this gaping security flaw. But Diebold's response was to send a series of threatening letters in which the company accused Sancho himself of compromising the security of the machines, describing his actions as "reckless...foolish and irresponsible." Sancho's countermove was to sever ties with the company and start looking for an alternative voting system.

That was when things started getting tricky. Sancho initially hoped to turn to ES&S, which not only had an optical-scan system on the market but was also bringing out a new system called AutoMARK, which made it possible for disabled citizens to vote independently--a requirement for the 2006 voting cycle laid down by the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress four years ago. At the end of December, however, ES&S made the abrupt decision not to do business with him. It was the same story with Sequoia, which initially offered a hugely expensive all-touch-screen system that Sancho didn't want but then backed out at the last moment. Sancho still had his old optical-scan machines, so he reluctantly went back to Diebold and asked the company if it would provide the extra equipment he needed to keep Leon County in compliance with HAVA. Diebold turned him down cold.

Sancho became convinced he had been blacklisted because, as he told me, he was "a walking and talking contradiction of what [the voting-machine companies] have been attempting to spin about the integrity of their systems." Then the state and county authorities moved in on him. Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb wrote in February to say that if he did not have a HAVA-compliant system in place by May 1 the state would remove him from office. She also ordered him to return a half-million-dollar HAVA federal grant. That, in turn, triggered the ire of Leon County's commission chairman, Bill Proctor, who fired off memos painting Sancho as a troublemaker whose "ideological pursuits"--an interesting way to describe the desire for fair elections--had enmeshed the county in deep legal and financial difficulties.

Sancho steeled himself for the fight of his life, relying largely on the support of the local electorate, which has returned him to office by overwhelming margins four times in a row, and on Florida's major newspapers, which rallied vigorously to his defense. In the end, his salvation came from the unlikeliest of sources. Florida's Republican Attorney General, Charlie Crist--who just happens to be running for governor this year--came roaring out of nowhere and announced he was issuing investigative subpoenas to all three major voting-machine vendors because he suspected that their refusal to sell to Leon County was a violation of the state's antitrust and civil rights laws. "We have an obligation to protect democracy and afford our citizens the right to vote in a fair and open democratic process," Crist said. "If the companies are being petty, they need to stop."

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