June 15, 2010
No, this isn’t about your choice at the supermarket checkstand. Nor is this post about the controversial ID law in AZ – that would be a whole different post. Instead this is about the recent Democratic Senate primary in South Carolina, where all the ingredients for an election disaster were present.
First, take two obscure candidates in a statewide race. Yes, one the of the candidates (Rawls) had previously run for office but he was not widely known across the Palmetto state – he at least ran something of a campaign – website, rallies, e-mails, mailings. But the other candidate, come-from-nowhere victor (Greene), mounted no discernible campaign and still cruised to victory with 60 per cent of the vote. How likely is a scenario where an unemployed vet who lives with his Dad and faces felony obscenity charges emerge as the election winner. No wonder lots of folks are scratching their heads and looking for answers.
Next ingredient in this election controversy: paperless touchscreen voting machines. South Carolina uses the ES&S iVotronic DREs without a paper trail.
Touchscreen machines were originally promoted as the solution for accessibility by disabled voters. Problem is, this particular model is NOT able to be lowered for use by wheelchair-bound voters and is very challenging for voters with manual dexterity problems, such as patients with Parkinsons disease, or those impaired by stroke. So the claims about enabling disabled access fall apart pretty readily when examined in the context of certain kinds of disabilities that are frequently suffered by older voters.
But states across the country raced to buy up these paperless technological wonders after Congress authorized a gush of Federal money ostensibly to provide greater accessibility for disabled voters. This was a major impact of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – a spending spree on paperless voting machines that garnered huge profits for the voting machine companies but did not really address the needs of many disabled voters. Many states are still using these technological blunders, with South Carolina being one of them.
One of the problems with touchscreen voting machines is that the screens can easily lose calibration, particularly during transport. This means that a voter’s finger may not be able to find the “sweet spot” on the screen that will reflect their selection – instead it may end up with another candidate’s name being selected because the screen is out of kilter. This frequently shows up as “vote flipping” or “jumping”. There are reports of this phenomenon in the recent South Carolina Primary and may partly explain the anomalous results.
Not only do these machines fail to meet the needs of many disabled voters and also rely on flaky touchscreens, they also provide no assurance that the votes are counted as the voters’ intended. The vote tally is done in secret using proprietary software: the process is inscrutable to the average voter. Plus, without voter verified paper records there is no way to recount or audit these election results. As demonstrated by Minnesota’s arduous Franken-Coleman recount, there is great value in having paper ballots that can be counted, audited and recounted to give the voting public the assurance that the election results can be relied on to be correct. South Carolina will not be able to offer this kind of assurance – the message is “trust us, the machines are correct” when the better message would be to be able to say “trust, but verify” (as Ronald Reagan famously said).
Furthermore, the paper ballots in Minnesota are still available for further study if the state so chooses: they are archived and would be available for future academic research projects. Minnesota uses optical scanning equipment made by the same company that produces the iVotronics used in South Carolina. The difference is that Minnesota voters have paper ballots that can be counted, recounted, audited and archived for future reference.
South Carolina, on the other hand, has only the reports generated by the touchscreen machines. There are no voter-verified paper records to recount or audit. While it would be possible for computer scientists to do a forensic study of the memory cards and vote logs, that has two intrinsic problems: on the one hand, this process would not be transparent to the average voter because it would rely on a handful of experts. On the other hand, the forensic evidence may not able to be preserved and may already be disappearing. Because there is a runoff election coming up shortly in South Carolina, the memory cards are probably already being erased and all the data from the recent election permanently lost with no chance of recovery. According to greenvilleonline, a request that the voting machines be impounded has been turned down. http://www.greenvilleonline.com/article/20100615/NEWS/306150015/Senator-wants-voting-machines-impounded
“Sen. Phil Leventis of Sumter asked the State Election Commission to impound voting machines until after an investigation is conducted. Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the State Election Commission said no machines will be impounded.”
“The commission has issued a statement on its website to try and reassure voters that the system is sound in anticipation of next week’s runoff.”
If there were a stack of paper ballots that could be preserved and recounted, then South Carolina would be in much better shape. There would be a way to check the results of the voting machine tally and find out whether the correct winner was produced.
Going forward, there is a legislative solution that should be pursued in the U.S. Congress that would require paper ballots in all Federal elections. If House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) is as perturbed by these South Carolina election results as he says he is when speaking in front of a TV camera, then he should get behind Rep. Rush Holt’s (D-NJ) Voter Accountability and Increased Accessibility Act (HR 2894), which does mandate paper ballots and audits for all Federal elections. Swift passage of HR 2894 would keep the kind of paperless mess that we are seeing in South Carolina from happening in the future. The bill has 97 co-sponsors but is languishing in the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation.
If nothing else, the South Carolina Primary mess should provide motivation for Congress to pass this vital election reform. Starting with Rep. James Clyburn.
Paper ballots, please! Paper ballots, now! Pass HR 2894.