At a time when there is much controversy over electronic voting and some election experts are raising concerns about the integrity of such voting, should the leading manufacturers of electronic voting machines be wining and dining state and local officials responsible for conducting elections? Well, they are.
This week, scores of elections officials from across the country have gathered in Washington for a conference sponsored by the Election Center. A Houston-based nonprofit, the Election Center is an organization for government employees responsible for voter registration and elections administration–such as voter registrars, elections supervisors, city clerks, state election directors, and secretaries of state. According to the group’s website, its purpose “is to promote, preserve, and improve democracy.” The Election Center keeps its members up-to-date on regulations and court decisions. It performs research for registration and elections officials. It offers classes in professional practices.
The center’s description of its activities does not note that it also allows the manufacturers of voting equipment to hobnob with state and local elections officials. At this week’s national conference, election officials have been able to attend panels on the Help America Vote Act, ethical dilemmas, recounts, voting for the blind and disabled, and elections litigation. (At one panel, according to an audience member, Representative Bob Ney, a Republican, was applauded when he dismissed demands for auditable paper trails for electronic voting, noting that a rigged electronic machine could also be fixed to produce a misleading paper trail. ) But in the hallways of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, voting machine manufacturers–including the companies that have drawn the most criticism–have been plying their wares. And to impress the local officials at the conference, three leading manufacturers of voting machines have been paying to make sure the attendees–the government employees who decide what voting machines are purchased–have a swell time.
According to the center’s program for the conference, the conference’s welcoming reception on August 26 was underwritten by Diebold Election Systems. The next day, a scheduled “Dinner Cruise on the Potomac and Monuments by Night Tour” was cosponsored by Sequoia Voting Systems. And Election Systems and Software (ES&S) agreed to pick up the tab for the final day’s “Graduation Luncheon and Awards Ceremony.”
Each of these firms have had brushes with controversy. Sequoia had their machines rejected in the 1990s by New York City due to concerns about fraud. Earlier this year, Diebold machines malfunctioned in California and disenfranchised thousands of voters. Election officials there accused Diebold officials of lying and misconduct, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned Diebold machines from four counties. Earlier, Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell, a fundraiser for George W. Bush, said in a letter that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver is electoral votes” to Bush. After that letter was revealed, he prohibited Diebold executives and employees from making political contributions. But since 1991, Diebold has handed GOPers $346,366 and Democrats $2700, as Ronnie Dugger recently noted in The Nation, a ratio of 127-1. ES&S is owned by prominent conservatives in Nebraska.
More importantly, computer and systems experts have questioned the security of electronic voting, and they have criticized these companies for refusing to supply information regarding their systems. As Dugger reported, David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford and a critic of computerized voting, recently asked, “Why am I always being asked to prove these systems aren’t secure? The burden of proof ought to be on the vendor. You ask about the hardware. ‘Secret.’ The software? ‘Secret.’ What’s the cryptography? ‘Can’t tell you because that’ll compromise the secrecy of the machines.’…Federal testing procedures? ‘Secret’! Results of the tests? ‘Secret’! Basically we are required to have blind faith.”
Electronic voting is a contentious issue. A recent poll showed that almost half–44 percent–said they believe computerized voting systems are unreliable. Three-fourths said the systems ought to leave a paper trail that can be audited.
Between 48 million and 61 million Americans will use computerized voting machines this November, according to various estimates. And that has many experts and citizens worried. (The they’re-going-to-steal-the-vote-with-rigged-machines conspiracy theory seems to be spreading through anti-Bush circles.) The nation’s elections officials are instrumental in making sure the election system works–that there is no fraud, that votes are counted. It is their task to insure that vote-counting machines operate properly and are secure. On its website, the Election Center declares, “Freedom is an inherent human right, but it is also fragile and can be lost through neglect or abuse….Therefore, it is our unique role as elections officials to serves as the gatekeepers of Democracy.”
As gatekeepers, they should not be accepting libations, nourishment, and entertainment from the companies they must negotiate with, evaluate, and oversee. The Election Center’s board of directors includes the executive secretary-director of North Carolina’s board of elections, the secretary of state of Colorado, and the Pennington County (South Dakota) auditor, and the outfit notes, “It is our sacred honor to protect and promote a public trust and confidence by our conduct of accurate and fair elections. As the public’s guardians of freedom within a democratic society, we are responsible for the integrity of the process.” To maintain that integrity and to promote public confidence, they should not accept gifts from the controversial manufacturers of controversial voting machines. That seems a no-brainer.
I called the Election Center to speak with a representative but did not hear back from the group. (The conference is under way.) But by accepting support from Diebold, Sequoia, and ES&S, these elections officials do little to encourage confidence in their judgment and impartiality. A cynic would not be unjustified to ask, if they cannot be trusted to make this call, how can they be trusted to count the votes?
When you’re done reading this article, check out David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read the latest on howthe Swift Vets’ attack on John Kerry continues to sink, how Bush’s top lawyer spins the Swift Vets’ attacks, and how Pat Buchanan wants to take over Christopher Hitchens’ column.
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