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How They Could Steal the Election This Time | The Nation

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How They Could Steal the Election This Time

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Click here to help prevent disenfranchisment in this year's election.

Ronnie Dugger wrote the definitive warning essay about the dangers of computerized vote-counting in The New Yorker of November 7, 1988. Research support was provided by The Nation Institute. Dugger wishes to acknowledge the special assistance of Frances Mendenhall, Pokey Anderson, Peter Neumann, Rebecca Mercuri, Roxanne Jekot and David Jefferson, and his debt to hundreds of other reporters whose work cannot be properly credited here.

Torment in Washington

About the Author

Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of The Politician, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and other books and articles, the...

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Though no broad citizens' movement has formed against computerized vote-counting, a nationwide backlash against unverifiable paperless voting has. The paper ballots used in the op-scan and punch-card systems already provide a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). The principal proposed security safeguard for the DRE system was invented, but not patented, ten years ago by computer scientist Rebecca Mercuri, now a research fellow at Harvard. In her solution, after voters record their choices on the touch-screen, they confirm them on a paper ballot that appears under glass and then push a button to cast the vote, causing the machine to deposit the paper ballot in a box that will hold it for recounting if that is ordered. The printer for the paper ballots for each voting machine should cost about $50; the total add-on could be $300-$600. Many jurisdictions also have the alternative of expanding or acquiring the relatively inexpensive optical-scan systems or other systems already in place that create paper trails.

In the US Senate seven Democrats and the one Independent are co-sponsoring a bill by Senators Bob Graham and Hillary Clinton to require paper trails on DREs by November, with a loophole for jurisdictions whose officials deem it to be technologically impossible. Clinton told the press that without a voter-verified paper trail GOP-leaning corporations might program voting machines to help Republicans steal elections [see sidebar, page 16]. In an interview in his hideaway office in the Capitol, Graham told me that he regards his and Clinton's bill as so obviously needed that it's "a no-brainer." The absence of a paper trail on the DREs could endanger "the legitimacy" of November's election, Graham said.

New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt introduced a House bill more than a year ago requiring a paper trail on DREs. It has 149 co-sponsors, including a few prominent Republicans. Holt says, "The verification has to be something that the voter herself or himself has to do"; without that, "we will never have a truly secure election." Holt's bill has opened up a partisan divide in the House. The chairman of the committee to which his bill is assigned, Ohio Republican Bob Ney, informed Holt that he is against the bill and would not allow a hearing on it. A few days later Graham and Holt wrote their fellow members of Congress that "without an independent, voter-verified paper trail, we will be able only to guess whether votes are accurately counted." Last month Ney relented and scheduled two hearings. Holt plans to offer his bill as an amendment to the Treasury appropriation after Congress returns from its August recess. Graham is still mulling his strategy.

The principal stated objection to a DRE paper trail comes from some spokespersons for the disabled, who characterize it as a step back from the touch-screen's improved accessibility and privacy. Many election officials, whose work paper ballots make both auditable and much more extensive, object variously that the attachment will add costs, that the printers might fail and that paper ballots can be stolen or counterfeited and sometimes produce somewhat different totals.

Leading citizen organizations have been split. Initially the League of Women Voters, concerned to minimize invalidly cast ballots, opposed the paper trail, but there was a revolt in the chapters and a petition for the paper trail was signed by 800 members. At the league's June convention, after a fight led by Barbara Simons, past president of the Association of Computer Machinery, the league switched sides, endorsing voting systems that are "recountable." Common Cause, placing the highest value on insuring that every vote is counted and can be recounted if necessary, has been among the leaders of the fight for the paper trail.

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