December 8, 2007

Bev Harris gets it wrong

Posted in election audits, Elections, Florida voting, Hr 811, paper ballots, voting, voting machines tagged , , , at 7:36 pm by bluebanshee

Debunking Bev’s tissue of factoids and insinuendo

I just received a fundraising appeal from Black Box Voting (Bev Harris’ 501(c)(3) organization) that left me scratching my head. So much of the information contained in the one-pager mailed to my home wrapped around a donation envelope was not based upon well-researched facts. Instead it was a farrago on insinuation and hyperbole designed to get raise alarms enough to folks to open their wallets to BBV.

Here is one passage that is a mix of information and mis-information:

Oregon does have some unique issues with its voting system. Oregon’s mail-in votes will be counted by ES&S computerized voting machines. It was an ES&S mail-in vote counting scanner (like those used to count Oregon mail-in votes) that was caught miscounting votes in Broward County, Florida in the 2004 presidential election. ES&S scanners were also caught miscounting in Orange County, Fla.

Let’s do a line-by-line analysis of the above paragraph and see where Bev gets it wrong.

  • First of all, Oregon’s problems are not unique in the sense that all states have absentee paper ballots that must be counted either by hand or by op scan machines. Many other states, including most of Bev’s own state of Washington, have switched to a vote by mail system. So why is Bev picking on Oregon and claiming that the state’s voting system has “unique issues”?
  • Next she says that ES&S scanners will be used to count mail-in ballots in Oregon. True enough, but this statement oversimplifies the situation. First, Sequoia machines are also used to count Oregon’s ballots in some counties. Secondly, there is more than one model of ES&S scanner used in Oregon — large counties use the M-650 and small ones use the M-100 or M-150. Because of the lack of uniformity in equipment used by Oregon’s 36 counties, Bev should not be making overly broad statements about scanners used in the state.
  • Finally, Bev talks about ES&S equipment that was caught miscounting in two Florida counties in 2004. I went to the VotersUnite.org site to check on the incident reports listed there for 2004. What I found out was that the errors in those counties were caused by software programming. The scanners were not able to tabulate more than 32,767 votes and beyond that point the software starts counting backward. Remember the earlier point about different model scanners being used in different Oregon counties? Well, this is an example of where that issue becomes important. The only Oregon counties where this type of equipment would be used would be the small counties where there are fewer than 32,000 total voters. So even if this glitch were lurking in the software used in Oregon, it would never be triggered. So this is a phony issue, at best. At worst, it shows sloppy research on the part of Bev Harris — or a basic lack of understanding about the differences between the different models of machines.

As Bev’s fundraising letter continues, her attention turns to dark mentions of “inside access” as if that is a newly discovered threat to elections instead of an age-old problem that has existed so long as one side or the other in a contested election was willing to engage in either the stuffing of ballot boxes or the nefarious disappearance of valid votes.

Yes, ES&S technicians do perform maintenance on scanners — under the supervision of local election officials. However, some counties have contracted with a local firm or choose to rely on the county IT department. Again, Bev makes overly broad statements that do not bear close scrutiny.

Bev also mentions Ballot Definition Programming being done in Omaha, NE by ES&S — but fails to note that many if not all Oregon counties have moved that process in-house and no longer farm it out to ES&S. Again, Bev is short on facts and gets it wrong.

I have spent a lot of time in county elections offices observing the processing of Oregon’s mail ballots. I have also run a program of volunteer observers in counties throughout the state during several election cycles. Based on my personal observations and the reports of volunteer observers in 12 counties, there are good checks and balances in place in Oregon and ample opportunity for citizen oversight. In addition, did you know that each county election director has to file an acceptable security plan with the Secretary of State’s office in January before each election cycle?

But that is still not enough. A audit is needed to assure the integrity of the system. And Oregon will have its first election audit during the 2008 election cycle. I support Oregon’s new election audit bill, hb 3270, as a good first step to implementing audits of elections at all levels. In typical Oregon fashion, this first audit bill is not overly ambitious and does not call for the audit of all contests. Instead there will be a limited number of races subject to audit. The audit is modeled on the tiered audit of the federal bill offered by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and is a good first step toward instituting robust election audits for all contests in the future.

Some might  ask why I am raising so many questions about a well-known election reform advocate like Bev Harris.

The real question in my opinion is whether  such mis-statements and factual inaccuracies have any impact on the credibility of Bev Harris in particular — and on the larger movement for election integrity in the U.S.  I would say that, yes indeed, this has a negative impact on Bev’s credibility because the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of  critics to get their facts right.  Once it becomes clear that factual errors form the the basis of a critic’s case against the voting machine vendors or the election system in a particular state, then it becomes easy for election officials and vendors to dismiss the critic as a tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist not to be taken seriously.

This makes it harder for legitimate fact-based critics to have their voices heard.  Indeed, there are valid scathing critiques of the software and equipment produced by vendors like ES&S, Sequoia and Diebold. The flaws  in these systems have been documented  by  folks with eminent computer science credentials — Avi Ruben, Ed Felten, David Dill and Barbara Simons to mention just a few.

It is a shame that Bev Harris doesn’t do her homework.  It is damaging to the entire election integrity movement when criticisms are leveled at voting systems that can be so easily debunked.

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