Guardian of the Ballot Box | The Nation


Guardian of the Ballot Box

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And stop they did. Within a month Diebold agreed to sell Leon County enough touch screens to fulfill the HAVA disability requirement. Sancho, characteristically, did not bask in his triumph. This, after all, was not the system he had wanted--the AutoMARK was never cleared for certification by Cobb's office, and no other non-touch-screen system met with the state's approval. The way he saw it, his work was cut out to make the Diebold machines safe for the voters before the primaries on September 5. "What am I going to do?" he said. "Crow victory because I was forced to buy machinery which, if I had my druthers, I'd rather have nothing to do with at all?"

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.

Instead, he set about making the Diebold touch screens as tamper-proof as humanly possible. Before the primaries his staff fitted each AccuVote TSx terminal with five separate numbered seals, including one holding the memory card in its slot and another over the modem port. The seals are particularly important in a state like Florida, which authorizes precinct clerks to take equipment home with them the night before an election (a practice known charmingly as a "sleepover"). Generic seals, used in many other counties, are too easy to break and replace; the numbered seals offer an extra layer of security. Sancho was also uncomfortable with the fact that the memory card slot and the on/off switch were right next to each other. To make it harder for anyone to take the machine apart and fiddle with it from the inside, he borrowed an idea from Alachua County: His technicians drilled a hole in the hard plastic outer shell of each machine just large enough for the precinct clerk to push the on/off switch with a metal stylus.

Diebold agreed to each of these security modifications, but there is certainly no love lost between the company and the supervisor. Sancho has not been shy in pointing out the shortcomings of the equipment--everything from software security issues identified by some of the country's leading computer scientists to the zipper on the bright blue canvas bags that Diebold provides to help transport the TSx terminals. "The zipper is not very good," Sancho told me, as we stood in the downtown Amtrak terminal his office uses on the eve of each election to distribute equipment, checklists and specific instructions to the precinct clerks. "So we've put a bungee rope inside each bag as a backup, each with its own dedicated seal, in case it's needed."

Sancho is a big believer in voter education--he never passes up a chance to appear on local television news stations to talk up both the importance and the mechanics of voting--and he makes no secret of his distrust of a system, like the Diebold TSx, that has no paper backup and is thus largely inauditable. Leon County's voters have clearly been listening to him--and reading the regular alarming reports on e-voting in the major Florida newspapers--because they have almost universally shunned the TSx in favor of the optically scanned paper-ballot system. Of more than 54,000 people who turned out to vote in the September primary in Leon County--at a turnout rate almost twice the statewide average--just 1,400, or 2.6 percent, used the TSx. It's been the same story around most of the rest of Florida. In a recent city election in Gadsden County, which now has an optical-scan system as its mainstay, not a single voter opted for the ES&S touch-screen alternative.

The trend is becoming national. Connecticut and New Mexico have both canceled plans for a major statewide buy of electronic touch screens. Maryland, one of two states to go all-touch-screen in the first flush of enthusiasm over computer voting, has a serious case of buyer's remorse following a meltdown in the September primary. Maryland's GOP governor, Robert Ehrlich, even tried to win a few quick political brownie points ahead of his tough re-election fight by suggesting a return to paper ballots in November. As a matter of practicality, that is not going to happen, because the time is just too tight. As a matter of savvy politics, though, it's clear that electronic voting machines are now widely regarded as the problem, not the solution.

That in itself is a damning indictment of the politicians and election administrators who rushed to purchase expensive computer systems without first checking that they actually worked. Worse still, the evidence from Montgomery County, Maryland, and elsewhere is that administrators didn't even see the need to provide an adequate supply of paper ballots as a backup in case of machine malfunction or human error. (Several members of Congress are now agitating for federal grants to the counties to make sure the paper backup is there and paid for.)

Sancho has followed events in Maryland closely, and is characteristically blunt about what is at stake when machines start to go wrong--or when, say, administrators somehow forget to include the smart cards needed to operate the touch-screen terminals in the equipment packs they send out to precincts. "It always starts out as a little thing," he said. "But little things have a habit of cascading into bigger problems. And if someone ends up disenfranchised, it's no longer a little problem."

Sancho's watchword all along has been: "I don't need new. I need effective." He has come to understand, over the years, that election administration is not about buying fancy machines and waving a magic wand. It's about being supremely organized--what he calls "the ability to reduce every task to its smallest segregate elements." When his precinct clerks come to the Amtrak depot on election eve, they check off every equipment item and seal number to make sure everything is properly accounted for. And when they bring the equipment back at the end of election day, the same process occurs in reverse.

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