Smoke, Mirrors, Votes
Did you know that during the March 7 primaries, a miracle occurred in Tarrant County? A record 158,000-plus citizens voted. Unfortunately, 100,000 of those ballots were cast by “ghost voters,” caused by a programming glitch courtesy of HartInterCivic, the company that makes our voting machines and writes the software.
Welcome, Tarrant voters, to the loopy funhouse mirror world of DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) voting systems, one of the biggest boondoggles around – a $5.9 million boondoggle here, to be exact, paid for by a Help America Vote Act grant from our federal government. On closer examination, HAVA should more appropriately be renamed the Help All (DRE) Vendors Act. The 2002 law, passed in the wake of the 2000 Florida voting fiasco, promised $3.9 billion to states and counties, and it started a feeding frenzy among major vendors. Counties and states, in turn, acted as responsible as teen-agers who’d swiped their parents’ credit cards. What should really boil our blood is that Tarrant already had, according to most experts, the best voting system around, a precinct-based optical scan system. Regardless, the county spent millions of our federal tax dollars for a system that will never work as well.
According to Andrew Gumbel’s book Steal This Vote, DRE systems are “inherently unsafe because of their vulnerability to software bugs, malicious code, or hack attacks.” They’re also “poorly programmed … and inadequately tested.” Finally, as the Florida task force on elections pointed out, DREs make recounts difficult, and – according to a Cal Tech/MIT study – their discard rate was worse than any other machine type except punch cards. Remember pregnant chads, anyone? So why are DREs selling like proverbial hotcakes? One reason is the misconception, spread by HartInterCivic and other vendors, that HAVA requires every polling place to have at least one electronic voting machine for people with disabilities and special-needs voters.
But HAVA doesn’t require that. It only requires state and local governments to make elections accessible. As Rice University computer scientist Dan Wallach has written, “DREs are not the only systems that can satisfy this requirement. Computer-assisted ballot-marking devices have a DRE-like computer interface but print onto standard optical scan ballots. Such systems cost far less.”
Another reason DREs are hopping off the griddle is a political culture of collusion. One of Austin-based HartInterCivic’s investors is the Texas Growth Fund, which is run by the state and, as the Austin Chronicle has pointed out, “is currently wholly owned by the Republican party.”
So HartInterCivic got money from Texas taxpayers, thanks to its Republican pals, so it could procure millions of federal taxpayer dollars from the HAVA gravy train. And where has all this public investment in a private company gotten us? Not even a lousy t-shirt, just a voting system that is not even minimally transparent, verifiable, or reliable.
But the collusion doesn’t end there. Hart trumpets that it’s certified by the state. That’s nothing to brag about. Gumbel cites a meeting of the Texas Voting Systems Examination Board with a Diebold sales rep as “evidence of the pathetically low intellectual level on which the elections business is conducted.” The board lobbed softball questions and got animated only when talking about airport security and airline schedules. The meeting, Gumbel writes, was “oddly compelling to watch in a soufflé-deflating car-wreck-ogling sort of way.”
So what’s a Tarrant voter to do? Fortunately, HartInterCivic, besides making the DRE eSlate, makes eScan voting machines, which are an optical scan system. On election day, we should use those. Also, we need to insist that our state examination board make its meetings with vendors public. Board members should not be allowed to hide their incompetence behind closed doors. Plus, we need to require DREs to print paper ballots so voters can verify their votes. But these recommendations are not enough. In 2004, after being asked if the Carter Center would ever monitor a U.S. election, Jimmy Carter stated flatly, “We wouldn’t think of it. The American political system doesn’t measure up to any sort of international standards.”
So who measures up? Such advanced countries as Venezuela, East Timor, and Zambia. Isn’t it long past time for our country to finally take elections seriously and reform our outdated patchwork voting system that encourages corruption and rewards incompetence? Democracy is just an empty promise unless we can be sure our votes are counted.
Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue is a part-time writer and full-time citizen. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.