William Rivers Pitt: Saving Your Right to Vote

Published: Tue 23 Nov 2004 11:59 AM
Saving Your Right to Vote
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 22 November 2004
Author's Note | I delivered the following remarks on the evening of November 21 at a Brookline PeaceWorks forum on the 2004 voting irregularities. Truthout readers will recognize some of the text to follow, as it is from my article on this topic from 08 November.
Section two of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, in paraphrase, as follows: ''But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the inhabitants of such state, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.'' In other words, if a state can't manage to run a fair election, that state loses Senators or Congresspeople. I have this dream of sending Senators DeWine and Voinovich of Ohio, along with Congressman Ralph Regula of Ohio, out of Washington in a blizzard of shame and disgrace. It's a dream, but a good one.
You've heard from Jonathan Simon tonight about what has been happening over the last several weeks since the election. By now you've also heard the stories: Nationally, there were more than 1,100 incidents of electronic voting machine malfunctions. In Broward County, Florida, election workers were shocked to discover that their shiny new machines were counting backwards. "Tallies should go up as more votes are counted," according to the news story. "That's simple math. But in some races, the numbers had gone down. Officials found the software used in Broward can handle only 32,000 votes per precinct. After that, the system starts counting backward."
In Franklin County, Ohio, voting machines gave Bush 3,893 extra votes in one precinct alone. "Franklin County's unofficial results gave Bush 4,258 votes to Democratic challenger John Kerry's 260 votes in Precinct 1B," according to the news story. "Records show only 638 voters cast ballots in that precinct. Matthew Damschroder, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said Bush received 365 votes there. The other 13 voters who cast ballots either voted for other candidates or did not vote for president."
In Craven County, North Carolina, a software error on the electronic voting machines awarded Bush 11,283 extra votes. "The Elections Systems and Software equipment," according to the news story, "had downloaded voting information from nine of the county's 26 precincts and as the absentee ballots were added, the precinct totals were added a second time. An override, like those occurring when one attempts to save a computer file that already exists, is supposed to prevent double counting, but did not function correctly."
In Carteret County, North Carolina, "More than 4,500 votes may be lost," according to the news story, "because officials believed a computer that stored ballots electronically could hold more data than it did. Local officials said UniLect Corp., the maker of the county's electronic voting system, told them that each storage unit could handle 10,500 votes, but the limit was actually 3,005 votes. Officials said 3,005 early votes were stored, but 4,530 were lost."
In LaPorte County, Indiana, a Democratic stronghold, the electronic voting machines decided that each precinct only had 300 voters. "At about 7 p.m. Tuesday," according to the news story, "it was noticed that the first two or three printouts from individual precinct reports all listed an identical number of voters. Each precinct was listed as having 300 registered voters. That means the total number of voters for the county would be 22,200, although there are actually more than 79,000 registered voters."
In Sarpy County, Nebraska, the electronic touch screen machines got generous. "As many as 10,000 extra votes," according to the news story, "have been tallied and candidates are still waiting for corrected totals. Johnny Boykin lost his bid to be on the Papillion City Council. The difference between victory and defeat in the race was 127 votes. Boykin says, 'When I went in to work the next day and saw that 3,342 people had shown up to vote in our ward, I thought something's not right.' He's right. There are not even 3,000 people registered to vote in his ward. For some reason, some votes were counted twice."
Stories like this have been popping up in many of the states that put these touch-screen voting machines to use. Beyond these reports are the folks who attempted to vote for one candidate and saw the machine give their vote to the other candidate. Sometimes, the flawed machines were taken off-line, and sometimes they were not. As for the reports I just described, the mistakes were caught and corrected. How many mistakes made by these machines were not caught, were not corrected, and have now become part of the record?
The flaws within these machines are well documented. Professors and researchers from Johns Hopkins University performed a detailed analysis of these electronic voting machines in May of 2004. In their results, the Johns Hopkins researchers stated, "This voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts. We identify several problems including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats, and poor software development processes. We show that voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software."
"Furthermore," they continued, "we show that even the most serious of our outsider attacks could have been discovered and executed without access to the source code. In the face of such attacks, the usual worries about insider threats are not the only concerns; outsiders can do the damage. That said, we demonstrate that the insider threat is also quite considerable, showing that not only can an insider, such as a poll worker, modify the votes, but that insiders can also violate voter privacy and match votes with the voters who cast them. We conclude that this voting system is unsuitable for use in a general election."
Many of these machines do not provide the voter with a paper ballot that verifies their vote. So if an error - or purposefully inserted malicious code - in the untested machine causes their vote to go for the other guy, they have no way to verify that it happened. The lack of a paper ballot also means the end of recounts as we have known them; now, on these new machines, a recount amounts to pushing a button on the machine and getting a number in return, but without those paper ballots to do a comparison, there is no way to verify the validity of that count. The paper ballot aspect isn't nearly the worst part. The paper ballots are only useful in a recount situation. If the margin of victory or defeat described by these machines is large enough, there won't be a recount in most states.
The worst part is the fact that all the votes collected by these machines are sent via modem to a central tabulating computer which counts the votes on Windows software. This means, essentially, that any gomer with access to the central tabulation machine who knows how to work a spreadsheet program and can fiddle around in Explorer can go into this central computer and make wholesale changes to election totals without anyone being the wiser.
Bev Harris, who has been working tirelessly since the passage of the Help America Vote Act to inform people of the dangers present in this new process, got a chance to demonstrate how easy it is to steal an election on that central tabulation computer while a guest on the CNBC program 'Topic A With Tina Brown.' Ms. Brown was off that night, and the guest host was none other than Governor Howard Dean.
Thanks to Governor Dean and Ms. Harris, anyone watching CNBC that night got to see just how easy it is to steal an election because of these new machines and the flawed processes they use.
"In a voting system," Harris said on the show, "you have all the different voting machines at all the different polling places, sometimes, as in a county like mine, there's a thousand polling places in a single county. All those machines feed into the one machine so it can add up all the votes. So, of course, if you were going to do something you shouldn't to a voting machine, would it be more convenient to do it to each of the 4000 machines, or just come in here and deal with all of them at once? What surprises people is that the central tabulator is just a PC, like what you and I use. It's just a regular computer."
Harris then proceeded to open a laptop computer that had on it the software used to tabulate the votes by one of the aforementioned central processors. Harris had Dean close the Diebold GEMS tabulation software, return to the Windows PC desktop, click on the 'My Computer' icon, choose 'Local Disk C:,' open the folder titled GEMS, and open the sub-folder 'LocalDB' which, Harris noted, "stands for local database, that's where they keep the votes." Harris then had Dean double-click on a file in that folder titled Central Tabulator Votes,' which caused the PC to open the vote count in a database program like Excel. "Let's just flip those," Harris said, as Dean cut and pasted the numbers from one cell into the other. Harris sat up and said, "We just edited an election, and it took us 90 seconds."
It goes without saying, and is the core of the argument, that any system which makes it this easy to steal or corrupt an election has no business being anywhere near the voters on election day. Period.
The counter-argument states that people with nefarious intent, people with a partisan stake in the outcome of an election, would have to have access to the central tabulation computers in order to do harm to the process. Keep the partisans away from the process, and everything will work out fine. Surely no partisan political types were near these machines on Tuesday night when the votes were counted, right?
One of the main manufacturers of these electronic touch-screen voting machines is Diebold, Inc. Millions of voters across the country used their machines to cast their ballot on November 2nd. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Diebold gave $100,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2000, along with additional contributions between 2001 and 2002 which totaled $95,000. Of the four companies competing for the contracts to manufacture these voting machines, only Diebold contributed large sums to any political party. The CEO of Diebold is a man named Walden O'Dell. O'Dell was very much on board with the Bush campaign, having said publicly in 2003 that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."
So much for keeping the partisans at arm's length.
I could go on and on in this vein, but as a former teacher, I am a big believer in visual aids. I hold in my hand here a Diebold corporate document from March of 2003. It lists all the counties in all the states where their electronic touchscreen voting machines were put to use. The document is 28 pages long, and lists counties in 37 states. This is what we are up against. Thanks to the Help America Vote Act, this document will get longer and longer with each successive election.
I'm supposed to stand up here and talk about what we can do about it. I'll ignore, for the moment, the fact that we are forced to fight a political war on twenty fronts right now. I'll ignore the fact that the media remains an abomination, that we have no empowered allies in any of the three branches of government, that our new Attorney General will probably get confirmed despite the fact that he made a number of documented legal arguments claiming that the torture, murder and rape of prisoners at Abu Ghraib wasn't really torture, that the supreme court will soon be packed with Scalia clones, and that our illegal war in Iraq continues to claim life after life after life. 1,221 American soldiers are dead in Iraq as of today, 100 in the month of November.
I'll ignore all of that, and instead stand here and talk about money. Money money money. If you want to attack the problems surrounding these electronic voting machines, you had better be prepared to dig deep, because no attack will amount to a bucket of warm spit without money. In today's political world, nothing happens without money, and money makes all the difference. I'll give you one example. We've had all these reports of voting irregularities, but nothing has seemed to take root in the public or media consciousness. Is it a conspiracy? No.
As ominous as these reports have been, they have been brushed off because George W. Bush managed to nail down a three million vote advantage in the popular vote. Can these machines, combined with the kind of vote spoilage/voter intimidation that Greg Palast has been reporting on, account for all that? Possibly, but another factor must be brought into the equation. Bush got that three million vote advantage because the Kerry campaign and the DNC did not spend any money in the South and Midwest to boost voter turnout. Had the campaign spent that money and managed to get 40-45% of the popular vote in the South and Midwest, that three million popular vote margin would have been erased, and the issues surrounding these machines would suddenly be all the more pressing. Money money money.
The Democratic Party has a decision to make about the future. Two roads diverge in this electoral wood. The first road leads to an attempt to chew into the GOP base in the South and Midwest while having no power in any of the three branches of the national government. This will, in my opinion, cut our ability to defend the states we hold (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota were way too close this time), and will not yield much success in converting enough people to haul in Electoral College votes from those regions we have lost. The act of attempting to chew into that Southern base will require the Party to take a hard right turn, not only casting off progressives, but also shattering formerly dependable voter blocs, specifically women. In order to make a dent in a lot of Red states, the Party will have to distance itself from its traditionally stout defense of a woman's right to choose, and women voters will be most affected by this. The list of negatives goes on and on.
The Democratic Party could concentrate their resources on four fronts:
1) Hold what they got - New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, DC, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, California and Hawaii;
2) Go hard after states they have a good chance of swinging - Missouri, Arkansas, New Mexico;
3) Go absolutely bananas to get Ohio, and take Florida off the table for the time being. All sincere apologies to my Floridian brothers and sisters, but as long as Jeb and the touch-screens run things down there, it is impossible to justify spending vital resources to make it go blue again. One does not gamble at a table that is known to be crooked, and the money freed up will greatly assist the other items on this list. From the county committees to the state party to the DNC, go after Ohio from soup to nuts;
4) Do not ignore the South and Midwest completely, by any means. Spend at least a portion of the Florida money to get people out to vote in these regions, aim for that 40-45% target, in order to bolster the popular vote total and avoid a 'mandate' debate.
The states won by the Democrats in 2004 plus some or at least one of the states they can swing + Ohio equals victory, and then begins the attempt to chew into the GOP base in the South and Midwest, with the Executive branch in their control. Doing this will allow the party to avoid a hard right turn, to avoid stuffing things like the choice issue into a back room, and to keep the progressives on board by not alienating them with a bunch of Jomentum nonsense.
The progressives, still on board, can work to attack the electronic vote issue, and can help get Democrats elected to the House in places they can score seats. More importantly, they can run people for the office of Secretary of State and get control of the voting process on the ground floor. Two groups - Progressive Democrats of America (the Kucinich people) and Democrats For America (the Dean people) have recently joined forces and are already organizing to do this. If the party turns right, a lot of the good people working in these groups will tell the Party to get bent.
The Democratic Party today is a bicoastal/great lakes Party right now, and must play to that strength. They have to make the arguments that work - Massachusetts is a great whipping boy for the GOP and their values crap, but I suppose it bears mentioning that our evil state has the lowest divorce rate and the best-working gun laws in the country, and perhaps the moral red states where people are getting divorced left and right while blasting each other with Glock 9's might like to get a bit of our mojo.
We're fighting a political war on twenty fronts right now. One cannot swing one's dead cat by the tail without striking a cause worth dying for. One cannot swing one's dead cat by the tail without striking a fight that, in all honesty, will be very hard to win. A lot of people will tell you that all this stuff, all this inside baseball about where we can win and what we should do, won't come to much of anything unless and until the right to vote is secure, safe and straight.
Money. Money. Money. Those two groups - Progressive Democrats of America and Democracy for America - along with Bev Harris and - are fighting this fight. Without money, they can't hire lawyers. Without lawyers, they can't do anything at all to represent people who have been disenfranchised. Without money, they can't run people for Secretary of State, and so cretins like Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell will be the ones deciding how people can vote.
It isn't enough to be right. Dig deep. Donate.
We are up against a mob of conservatives that have taken this government from top to bottom not because they are right, not because they are more dedicated, but because they are well-funded. If we can't match that, we might as well stay in bed.
Thank you.
On Sunday night, truthout published an article by Marjorie Cohn titled 'Litigating the Vote.' In it, she describes exactly the kind of legal actions that can be brought by well-funded groups looking into the voting issues which arose on Election day. "Without much fanfare," writes Cohn, "a number of lawyers are busy mounting court challenges to the election. Lawsuits have been filed and other actions are being taken in Ohio and Florida, the two key electoral states. Members of Congress have demanded a General Accountability Office investigation of the election. The largest Freedom of Information Act request in the nation's history has been launched, and other efforts are in the works."
Those groups, and those lawyers, can do a lot more if they get help paying the bills. Hint hint. - wrp
William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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