Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vote Early and Often

Voting used to be an orderly process. People never got too riled up about elections. There were usually two candidates, neither all that different from the other. Occasionally, there was a third candidate, but he was a lot like the other two. People went to the polls, voted, and the candidate with the most votes won.

2000 changed all that. After Bush was appointed president, there was an outcry and chorus about the optical scanners and other electronic voting machines that facilitated his “victory.” You’d hear people saying “It’s the optical scanner systems, stupid.” There was a lot of talk about reforming the way we vote, cleaning it up, making it transparent, incapable of sabotage. Now, 6 years later, after another national election, on the eve of yet another, it’s time to ask, “What happened?”

The answer, unfortunately, is: Not much.

Report after report proves that these machines, as well as other electronic voting systems, just don’t work. And that if they do, the people who operate them aren’t trained properly, making them dangerously error-prone. Even the staid Chicago Tribune
is worried. In fact, just Google "voting irregularities, optical scanners.” for more lurid details.

According to the consensus, optical scanners are easily hacked, manipulated, and contaminated. And many of them don’t generate a paper trail so we can figure out if and how they’ve been hacked, manipulated, and contaminated. Bottom line? Never has the potential for vote fraud been so massive as it is today. And that doesn’t even start to address the fact that the CEO of the company that makes many of the machines (Diebold) is a significant Republican contributor committed to Bush.

Seems to me if there’s anything we hold sacred these days (and I realize there’s not much) it should be our ability to vote and believe it might make a difference. Granted, stuffing the ballot box is not a new-fangled thing. In fact, Chicago has a rich tradition of it. (Quick: who coined the phrase “Vote Early and Often?”)*

But after the Florida nightmare in 2000 and the debacle in Ohio in 2004, I’m afraid we’ve become so inured to systemic corruption that we’ve become cynical and apathetic. We just assume the fix is in-- and we don’t bother to challenge it.

Well, we have another chance in less than two weeks. The pundits all say a sea change is coming. Is it? What should we do if it doesn’t? What if, for some unexplained reason, some of the Republicans who are expected to lose end up winning? Do we just say the media was overreaching? The polls were wrong? The issues people care about were “Republican issues” after all?

Or do we ask the hard questions: Who did the counting? How did they do it? Who trained them and how? And where’s the paper trail? I, for one, would sure like to know those answers. I’d like to know the “chain of custody” with the process. How the votes get transferred to a central collection point. Who enters the data. Who pushes the buttons, and which buttons they push.

Of course, we could simply eschew the exercise of voting altogether. We can always watch it on TV. Hey -- we could even let Paula, Simon and the rest of the gang decide who our next American Idol should be.

Come to think of it, we might already be doing something tantamount to that when we depend on optical scanners to tally our votes.

I think it should be an interesting evening. What do you think?

(By the way, David Skibbins, a fine mystery writer, has a book coming out in 2008 about how a Presidential election is manipulated through optical scanners. He’s calling it Hardened. Timely, no?)

*Answer: Big Bill Thompson, Chicago mayor, 1915-1931 (more or less)


Sara Paretsky said...

Yes, there's already been evidence that Diebold voting machines have probably been tampered with--in Orange County, two years ago, when the Republican incumbent was trailing badly in the early counts, a Diebold tech came in to make repairs to the machine, and the incumbent miraculously beat back the challenge. with no paper trail and no other audit backup of the votes, it was impossible to question the outcome. Oh, Libby, you've raised serious questions for which, once again, there are no easy or good answers!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

These are very serious questions. Unfortunately, when I talk about my concerns, most of the people I know simply shrug it off. It's not so much that they don't know what to do about it, they just don't care. They don't think it would make a difference anyway. And no matter how much I might try to get them to see the problems, they're not interested.

Maryann Mercer said...

My daughter, who lives in Oregon, informed me that they just received their ballots in the mail for the 11/7 election. Oregon has no polling places for those electronic vote gobblers. People vote by mail. I realize this puts the paper in the hands of a human, but isn't this the way we voted for decades before someone decided machines were better and faster and would lessen the time we had to wait in line? To me, this sytem also gives the voter greater responsibility. Take the time to mark the ballot and mail it.
I wish I knew how to combat the opportunities for fraud when it comes to the voting booth, but I know one thing that needs to happen if the GOP pulls off landslide victories after the past two years...the voters need to demand(not request) either a paper trail or an election by the old fashioned vote in the ballot box method. What if it takes a few days? Wouldn't that be better for most of us than two more years of whatever has been passing for democracy?
And for my own peace of mind I am voting for neither major party candidate in the Illinois gubernatorial race. I'm voting green party. (And wouldn't it be something if the machines allowed HIM a landslide! :o) )

The Home Office said...

I live in Maryland, and requested an absentee ballot, even though I'll be in town. (I realize other states may have different election rules.) I see no reason why we just can't use paper ballots like we used to, until we come up with a fail safe system. The primary objections will come from the media, who will be unable to show instant results on their election coverage. I don't care if it takes a week to count the votes, so long as they're counted accurately.

Does it bother anyone else that we're spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives to "establish democracy" in Iraq, and we can't even run one here?

Sara Paretsky said...

Garrison Keillor's column today is very much to the point. I think you can see it at Salon:

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks to all of you who've commented on these sobering issues.

For those who want to know more, check out Mark Miller's book, "Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 election and How they'll steal the next one too." It gets into other techniques that are used to manipulate the count (besides doctored machines and reset buttons) such as dropping thousands of names off the roles, providing fewer machines to Democratic precincts, etc. And Bobby Kennedy Jr.'s article in Rolling Stone last summer (June 15) which was highlighted in my post yesterday is a comprehensive look at the situation.

It's estimated that nearly 80 per cent of the votes in THIS election will be cast or counted by an optical scanner or other computer.

So, what can we do? Unfortunately, a lot of the machinations will not be visible to voters or even poll workers and judges. But if you see something that doesnt look right, or if you have a problem -- any problem at all -- at the polls, report the incident at 866-OUR- VOTE.

Yes, it's after the fact, but it's better than doing nothing.

Libby Hellmann said...

One more thing: HBO will be airing a documentary called "Hacking Democracy." It's all about Diebold and other software systems that aren't as secure as they're cracked up to be. It's scheduled for November 2. Don't miss it!

ab said...

Idea # 1: Set up a paper ballot voting facility close to the regular voting venue, in order to make a paper trail.

Idea # 2: Does anyone here know Oprah Winfrey? Since she is viewed by millions, her show would be the greatest place to walk the audience through an almost failproof Swedish voting process. Exclusively paper ballots, everyone can vote so you don't have to qualify (no lists to manipulate), you watch the ballot go down into the container, and voting always takes place on a Sunday so nobody has to skip work. Or, if you do work on Sundays, you can vote earlier at your public library. Or by mail.

How can you put up with those undemocratic conditions? Sounds like chaos!

(There is an e-mail address at my homepage.)