Guardian of the Ballot Box

Guardian of the Ballot Box

Ion Sancho, an election supervisor in Florida, is dedicated to creating a fair and accurate voting system. But his passion has nearly cost him his job.



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.

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.”

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.”

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?”

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.

Sancho is both a workaholic and something of a micro-manager, so he is intimately familiar with every aspect of his operation. He approaches his job a little like an old-fashioned ward boss in a city machine. He makes it his business to drive around the county dropping off last-minute absentee ballots, say, or to look up the records of a voter who believes he has been registered as a member of the wrong party. His staff gives his mobile phone number to anyone with a complaint or query, and he answers each of them in person. On election day he can be found racing from one precinct to another in his open-top red truck, a white hat protecting his bald head from the punishing Florida sun, checking on reports of malfunctioning machinery or candidates getting too close to the voters, or precinct staff who show any signs of irresponsible behavior. He drinks too much coffee and he drives too fast, but his energy is also unflagging. “I’m the troubleshooter,” he says. “My job is to find the flaws my employees have not identified.”

His personal contact with the voters also does wonders for his popularity: Election day typically sees him showered with compliments wherever he goes. “I appreciate your stamina. It’s so refreshing to find someone who, regardless of partisan politics, stands up for what he believes in,” a retired county worker (who did not want to be named) told him on primary day in September at a precinct at Tallahassee Community College. She took me aside and added: “You have to admire someone who refuses to be crushed by his opponents. And he’s fought some big dogs.”

The big dogs in Florida are responsible for several amendments to the state election law, many of them either strikes against openness and accountability or plays for partisan advantage for the Republican Party, or both. Election observers, both domestic and international, are now banned from voting precincts–a clear violation of international norms to which the United States subscribes. Challenging the eligibility of individual voters, a tactic employed predominantly by Republicans, has now become easier. The rules for absentee balloting, regarded as a net benefit for the Republicans, are also significantly laxer. But early voting, regarded as a net source of Democratic votes since it was introduced in the 2004 election cycle, has been made slightly more restrictive.

Most damaging, though, is last year’s rewrite of the rules on recounts. Section 102.166 of the state election law is titled “Manual recounts” but makes clear that such a concept is, to all intents and purposes, now obsolete. The best the law offers, in the event of a very close race, is a re-examination of paper ballots discarded by the machines the first time around, either because of overvoting (when the ballot appears to have been marked more than once for a given race) or undervoting (when the ballot appears not to have been marked at all). The sort of full manual recounts that voting-rights advocates (and, to a halfhearted degree, the Gore campaign) demanded in 2000 are now, literally, outlawed. We’ll never see another voting meltdown in Florida–not because the system has been fixed but because the mechanism for demonstrating that a meltdown has occurred has simply been removed. Between the introduction of paperless computers and the abolition of recounts, what Florida is left with is, essentially, an electoral regime based on blind faith.

In Leon County things are a little different. Because Sancho, like the state’s sixty-six other county election supervisors, is an elected official, he wields far more discretion over the management of his office than his counterparts in, say, Ohio, who answer to supervisory boards made up of appointees from the two major parties. He can’t break state law, but he can go beyond it if he chooses–keeping early voting sites open up to election day for the convenience of absentee voters who have missed the postal deadline, for example, or conducting postelection audits to make sure the tabulation machinery is working correctly.

In short, Ion Sancho remains the master of his domain–for the moment. When he showed up at his own suburban precinct at the Indian Springs Baptist Church on primary day, he received an amiable joshing from the staff. “Would you like to try out our new touch screen?” a worker called Casey asked him.

“No,” he replied, smiling. “I want my paper ballot.”

Casey told him he’d heard the same thing from a lot of people. Sancho shot a glance at the TSx sitting forlornly on its own side of the room and added: “Those things aren’t hot sellers right now, are they?”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy