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False Choices in the Debate on Voting Technology

American democracy cannot afford another questionable presidential election. So why are the Democrats getting the solution so wrong?
 
 
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American democracy cannot afford another questionable presidential election. Anybody disagree? The good news is that over the course of the last few years -- through the exhaustive and tireless work of an extraordinarily dedicated, rag-tag band of citizen patriots I call "The Election Integrity Movement" -- both the public and most of our politicians have finally come to understand that we have a serious problem with our electoral system.

The bad news is that, while they've finally discovered there's a problem -- unreliable, inaccurate, hackable voting machines, which count our public elections with secret software created by private companies -- the politicians, specifically the Democrats, and many of their public advocacy groups, have gotten the solution wrong. The answer is not "paper trails," that will never be counted, attached to touch-screen voting systems. The answer is paper ballots that are actually tabulated, either by optical-scan or hand-count. Seems simple enough, I know. But apparently not.

At The BRAD BLOG, we've been discussing the pros and cons of Rep. Rush Holt's (D-NJ) new Election Reform bill HR 811 since it dropped about two weeks ago in the House. It has a lot of co-sponsors and traction, and there is much good in it. Some of its features include requirements for publicly-disclosed software, greatly increased restrictions on the use of the Internet and other networking, a ban on insane voting machine "sleepovers" at pollworkers' houses prior to elections, mandatory random audits of results, and a requirement for a "durable and archival paper ballot for every vote cast. Trouble is, Holt's bill never requires that the "durable and archival paper ballot" actually be tabulated. And that was no mistake.

I was allowed to give input to Holt's office with each draft of the new legislation -- an update, and a great improvement, to his Election Reform bill from the last session (HR 550) which, thanks to former-Rep. Bob Ney and the Republicans, never even made it to mark-up in committee. With each successive draft of the new bill, I suggested language that would require those "paper ballots" actually be tabulated, and each time, that language was not added.

Why? Because if such a requirement existed, Direct Recording Electronic (DRE/touch-screen) devices would effectively be banned forever from American elections in the bargain.

Sounds good to me. Given the number of legally-registered voters (thousands, if not millions) who were unable to even cast a vote due to DRE break-downs during the 2006 election cycle -- something that doesn't happen with a paper-based optical-scan or hand-counted system, which allows a voter to vote no matter what -- and the number of votes that were either flipped, recorded incorrectly or not at all by such touch-screen systems, it would seem to be a no-brainer that it's time to ban them all together.

Even the new Republican Governor of Florida now wants to replace his state's DRE machines with optical-scan systems. And, every computer scientist and computer expert I've ever spoken with agrees that op-scans are far safer for use in elections than DRE's.

Yet, Holt won't call for a ban on DREs in his legislation, and a number of the largest Democratic-based public-advocacy and civil rights groups don't want to ban them either. They are willing to support the dangerous Holt bill as is. So what the hell is going on here?

Here's what's going on: Supporters of the legislation are using three false dichotomies opportunistically and/or disingenuously and/or naively to help see it passed by Congress.

Democrats who support the bill, along with their closely-allied public advocacy groups -- such as Common Cause, PFAW, MoveOn, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, VoteTrustUSA, and the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition -- are currently unable or unwilling to show the necessary courage to insist upon the banning of disenfranchising, failed DRE/touch-screen voting system technology from all American elections.

And this is happening despite the fact that most of those groups actually agree --- and will admit privately, if not always publicly --- that DRE technology has no place in our electoral system.

Collectively, the following three arguments are being used to shore up support for a bill which offers much good, yet ultimately may prove to be as dangerous as the disastrous Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which set aside $3.8 billion federal tax dollars to "upgrade" America's electoral system with these god-forsaken machines.

We need an Election Reform bill. But we don't need another bad one. If Holt moves forward as written (and here are several well-constructed suggestions for much-needed amendments to it as well as an action or two you can take to get lawmakers attention) the bill risks becoming known as HAVA 2 by 2008. And this time, the Democrats won't have the Republicans or HAVA's main author, Bob Ney (he's in prison), to blame for the fiasco ...

FALSE DICHOTOMY #1: It's Either Holt or Hand-Counted Paper Ballots ...

The first of the three false dichotomies being forwarded by some of the bill's supporters is to suggest that there are only two choices: Pass the Holt bill 'as is,' or continue an unwinnable campaign for all hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB).

The now oft-repeated intimation is the very definition of a strawman, a canard, and a truly disingenuous false dichotomy.

While Hand-Counted Paper Ballots might be swell and offer maximum transparency and citizen oversight --- as well as not being nearly as difficult or unwieldy to accomplish as many under-informed folks may believe --- the majority of Holt detractors, including myself, are not fighting for hand-counted paper ballots at this time.

Banning DREs does not mean ballots must be counted by hand. Most supporters of the Holt Bill know that --- or should, if they don't --- yet seem to be using the false argument when convenient to distract from the real shortcomings and concerns of the Holt legislation.

Optical-scan systems, while also presenting their own security and accuracy concerns, could easily and safely be used with publicly-disclosed source code and a mandatory random hand-audit protocol of a sufficient number of ballots to achieve 99 percent scientific certainty that the reported results of any optically-scanned election are correct.

Suggesting that those who understand the need for a complete ban on failed DRE technology are actually demanding HCPB is a cheap and unsubstantiated political tactic, unworthy of this necessary debate. It serves only to confuse at a time when all well-meaning Election Integrity advocates (and I include Holt in that group) ought to be having a legitimate discussion/debate about these most important matters.

FALSE DICHOTOMY #2: Take Holt or Get Nothing (or Something Even Worse) ...

The next false dichotomy being used either disingenuously or naively by Holt supporters is the notion that "if we don't accept this legislation 'as is' we'll get either nothing or something far worse." Nonsense.

If all of the Democrats and their public-advocacy group supporters stood up today and demanded a ban on all DRE technology in elections, it would be a done deal. The only thing keeping such a provision from being included in a Federal Election Reform bill is the will to do so, as fostered by the trademark fear that Democrats seem to display when it comes to leading the same American People who put them into office in hopes of such leadership.

If Democrats learned to speak up for themselves and set the agenda instead of following the one set by the Republicans and the right-leaning corporate media, they'd easily be able to make their case to the American people and help them understand that a DRE/touch-screen voting machine that fails equates to hundreds or even thousands of lost votes in each precinct where such a failure occurs.

At its heart, the argument instead comes down to the wishes of the Voting Machine Companies and the nation's Elections Officials, many of whom have sold their souls and our democracy to those same companies. Neither of those groups wish to ban DREs. The former because they stand to make far more money from the sale of DREs (dozens of systems per precinct, instead of a single op-scan machine per polling place,) and the latter because replacing their recently-purchased systems would be too expensive, or force them to admit they were in error in the first place, or otherwise make their jobs more difficult on a number of levels. For example, they'd actually have to tabulate the ballots of voters and make sure the tabulation was correct.

FALSE DICHOTOMY #3: We Must Allow for DREs or 'Language Minority' Voters Will Be Disenfranchised ...

This last one is, perhaps, the most disturbing and currently the toughest to overcome, for reasons you'll discover shortly.

Despite the Holt bill's dangerous institutionalization of DRE voting systems, it seems that several advocacy groups, for whatever reason, have conveniently been hypnotized into believing that the continued use of DREs is actually a civil rights issue.

The tortured, backwards logic at work here is remarkable, considering that, even in a worst-case scenario, the Holt bill could easily be amended to allow for a single DRE system in each polling place as an optional voting device for disabled voters who wish to use it. (NOTE: Even that is unnecessary, since there are many alternate options for disabled voters that don't require the use of such failed, inaccurate technology.)

The latest public-advocacy canard then is the notion that "language minority" voters --- those whose first language is not English --- are somehow better served by faulty DRE technology than by paper ballots, printed in their own language, and counted either by optical-scan or by hand. The wholly misguided, unsubstantiated, and, in fact, counter-intuitive pretense is that banning DREs would somehow disenfranchise minorities.

The argument is utter hogwash. I welcome any actual evidence that shows I'm wrong, and will happily retract this editorial in the bargain if anyone can do so.

Even if one accepts the dubious argument that somehow a computerized touch-screen interface is better than a printed paper ballot for language minority voters, there are better alternatives to DREs, such as ballot marking devices like the AutoMARK system. Such devices include the same touch-screen computer interface as a DRE, but simply print out the voter's ballot to be counted by either optical-scan or hand.

I am aware of no legitimate reasons to use DRE technology in American democracy.

Congratulations to at least one Democrat, Maxine Waters, who has figured this out and has announced her intention to withdraw her co-sponsorship of the Holt bill in hopes that it will be amended.

THE DEMONSTRABLE, SUBSTANTIATED TRUTH: DREs Are a Menace to both Democracy and Civil Rights,_and It's Time to be Honest about That ...

DREs disenfranchise Left and Right, Black and White, and everything in between and to either side. Those of us paying very close attention learned that much, week after week, during the 2006 Election Cycle. The result is that many supporters of the previous Holt Legislation (HR 550), as written during the last Congress, have now withheld their support from the 'new and improved' bill since it does not close the door on the failed DRE technology once and for all.

The risks to America are too serious to do otherwise. Even if Holt's overly-optimistic supporters turn out to be correct and everything in his bill works precisely as designed, the fact is that confidence in our election system is as important to its ongoing viability as anything else.

As long as Americans are unable to ensure for themselves -- with their own eyeballs if necessary -- that any given election result is accurate and correctly reflects the will of the voters, the value of democracy in this country will continue to erode. The simple task of any election, at its heart, is a not-at-all-complicated process of adding one plus one plus one. Only full transparency in all stages of that simple task will begin to bring American democracy back from the precipice over which it now dangerously hangs.

There are many fights ahead in the battle for Electoral Integrity, but none, for the moment, is more important than a full ban on DREs in order to begin the process of restoring both transparency and confidence in American elections.

The sooner we can dispense with the unhelpful false dichotomies and phony and/or opportunistic and/or unsubstantiated arguments, the sooner we can reach the goal that I believe most Democrats, and Democratic-leaning public interest groups, are truly aiming for: Electoral Integrity in America.

 
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