Electronic voting: False Choices in the Debate


Richard Moore

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    False Choices in the Debate on Voting Technology
    By Brad Friedman
    Wednesday 28 February 2007

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 

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 

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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