Election 2004

Painting Happy Faces on Black Boxes

Faced with massive public concern and bad performances in recent elections, the electronic voting industry opted for a PR blitz instead of addressing its problems.
Last week it was reported that nearly all of Miami-Dade County's records of votes cast on electronic voting machines in the 2002 gubernatorial primary were lost (the information later turned up, but serious questions remain), and that Florida's Republican Party was warning voters, "Electronic voting machines do not have a paper ballot.... Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today." That's two more heavy straws added to the back of an already unhappy camel.

It's amazing how far the reputation of electronic voting has fallen. On November 9, 2000, Texas-based e-voting company Hart InterCivic bragged, "Electronic voting and reporting can be instrumental in avoiding the situation we're seeing in the Presidential election.... If Florida had used an e-voting system, we'd know the winner already, and there would be a party going on right now in Austin or Nashville."

Actually, the Florida 2000 debacle was due, in part, to an e-voting glitch. In a Florida precinct where just over 400 people voted, machines registered 2,813 votes for Bush and negative 16,022 votes for Gore. USA Today reported that on election night "the decision desks of the five networks and the Associated Press... were looking at models that included the negative Gore count."

As the undeniably sorry state of U.S. elections and the strong civil rights, disabled rights and voting rights activism pushed Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in October 2002, e-voting companies were celebrating what one industry analysis called a "tremendous market opportunity."

Around the same time, expert critiques of and troubling incidents with e-voting systems multiplied to the point of attracting major media attention. In response, the "only trade association representing the broad spectrum of the world-leading U.S. [information technology] industry" urged e-voting companies to unite under a public relations banner, and the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) took the lead.

The ITAA lobbies on behalf of its more than 400 U.S. corporate and 50 foreign association members. Its political action committee focuses on taxes, outsourcing and other issues important to high-tech industries. ITAA's Enterprise Solutions Director, Michael Kerr, developed an E-voting Industry Coalition Draft Plan in late 2002, to "create confidence and trust," "promote the adoption of technology-based solutions," and "repair short-term damage done by negative reports and media coverage." The plan advocates outreach to media, elected officials, those "involved in the purchase decision," academics, the general public, "international counterparts," and government contractors (in that order) to promote electronic voting as the "gold standard." Kerr's plan concludes by stressing that e-voting companies could benefit from ITAA's "sophisticated government affairs and public relations apparatus" and "track record of lobbying for federal funding."

Activist Bev Harris obtained the ITAA plan and posted it on her website, blackboxvoting.org. Kerr subsequently downplayed its importance, calling it "just a standard trade association plan," according to Wired News. But other activists who joined an industry conference call reported that ITAA president Harris Miller said the plan was carefully worded, because "we just didn't want a document floating around saying the election industry is in trouble, so they decided to put together a lobbying campaign."

In October 2003, Kerr told Technology Daily that the e-voting companies had not yet decided whether to implement his plan, but that he expected a decision "fairly soon." On December 9, ITAA announced the formation of the Election Technology Council (ETC), directed by Michael Kerr. ETC's founding members are Advanced Voting Systems, Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia and Unilect.

At ETC's launch, Hart InterCivic head David Hart said the group formed just when "voters are beginning to realize the benefits of electronic voting." But Computerworld quoted Hart giving a different rationale: "We came together because our environment has become chaotic.... We need to be able to speak as an industry in a single voice on the areas being regulated.... We want to be part of the debate and tell our industry's side of the story. There's a lot of misinformation."

In an interview with PR Watch, Michael Kerr called ETC "still kind of formative... we've obviously been tracking the security debate." But he identified some priorities, including making the "state certification process more uniform and faster" and securing a seat on the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, a body assisting with the development of voluntary federal voting systems standards. Kerr said ETC offers "an industry wide perspective," free from "the marketing or sales perspectives of individual vendors."

When asked about security concerns, Kerr responded, "There are many things that should reassure people who use electronic voting.... The critics are focused on hypothetical scenarios... not on how the system is actually implemented." Although "no technology is invulnerable," he claimed "there have been no documented security breaches with electronic voting in an election."

One indication of ETC's influence came from Wilmington's News Journal in December 2003. Written by the Delaware elections commissioner and titled "Voting Machines Are Reliable," the article warned: "Some people are riding a bandwagon wanting receipts of their votes so they know they have been cast, and some states are obliging that trend. That opens the door for tampering with voting machines to switch and lose votes as well as 'fix' the paper receipts." The piece ended, "Contact my office... for additional information by the Election Technology Council."

The Election Assistance Commission, the federal body overseeing HAVA implementation – which generated alarm recently when its chair asked for a contingency plan to delay elections in case of a terrorist attack – held its first public hearing on electronic voting in May. Although there was a vendor's panel, ETC's "unified voice" was not heard as such. The day before the hearing, however, ITAA "released a survey that found 77 percent of registered voters were either 'not very concerned' or 'not concerned at all' about the security of election systems," according to Associated Press. Computer scientist Aviel Rubin dismissed the ITAA survey, stating, "Would they ask questions about the safety of a medical procedure of patients or of doctors? They should ask computer security experts about computer security questions."

The ITAA/ ETC response to "Computer Ate My Vote" rallies in 19 states across the country in mid-July may be indicative of a new strategy: discredit the opposition. Harris Miller told Computerworld, "It's not about voting machines. It's a religious war about open-source software vs. proprietary software." Miller compared listening to e-voting critics – whom he characterized as open-source proponents, ignoring the concerns of such broad-based groups as the League of Women Voters – to "asking a bunch of clergymen what they think of premarital sex."

By January 2006, states must comply with HAVA mandates for updated and accessible voting machines, among other requirements. With big money at stake – nearly $4 billion is allocated to states under HAVA – the electronic voting industry is sure to intensify its PR war. The problem is, if the camel's back breaks, so does the cornerstone of our democracy.