June 19, 2010

Rage Against the Machines

Posted in Election reform, Elections, ES&S, paper ballots, politics, voter verified paper ballots, voting, voting machines tagged , , , , , , at 5:42 pm by bluebanshee

This post is not about the rock group of that was famous for innovative virtuoso guitar work and political activism, although they might well join the the chorus of outraged denunciation of the unreliable paperless voting machines used in South Carolina.

Just how bad could the voting machines in SC be?

Answer: really, really, really bad. Flaky. Unreliable. Not ready for prime time. In fact, it’s laughable that a country with our technological knowhow would be relying on these machines to count our votes.

And this is not really news. As far back as 2007 veteran newsman Dan Rather did an expose on HD.net entitled “The Trouble With Touchscreens” The show lays bare the shoddy manufacturing practices of ES&S that produced out the iVotronic voting machines that South Carolina voters use to cast their ballots. Production was off-shored to the Philippines to a factory with deplorable working conditions. Quality control was non-existent. But ES&S made a huge profit on each machine in those glory days after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) bestowed $3 billion on the states to “modernize” their voting equipment.

The video of the Rather 2007 broadcast is not posted online, as far as I can tell, but can be downloaded from iTunes or ordered from Amazon.com. Otherwise I would post it here for reference. Instead, I will rely on transcripts of Rather’s show to demonstrate just how badly these machines were manufactured and how this can impact their (mal)functioning at the polling place as voters attempt to cast their ballots. These transcripts can found in toto at http://election-reform.org/dan.rather.html/, if anyone wants to peruse them.

First let’s take a look at the rush to crank out as many of these machines as possible to meet the demand fueled by the logjam of orders from the states in the aftermath of HAVA. The production of these machines was offshored to the Philippines to a rundown factory in the shantytowns of Manila. Working conditions were terrible, so overwhelmingly hot and humid that workers found it difficult to focus on their jobs. Eddie Vibar was an electrical engineer who worked at the plant in the immediate post-HAVA period.

Rather: But almost nothing may have affected the workers or the machines, like the crushing heat and humidity of Manila, in a factory with only a few air conditioners, often broken or turned off. Vibar recalls days when the temperature inside rose to over ninety degrees.

14:00 Eddie Vibar: We really could not work when the heat in the factory got to be too much…

we would lose our concentration while trying to do repairs.

So we would take off our polo shirts…

because it would make it a little cooler.

It’s hard to do repairs while you’re also holding a fan or a piece of cardboard…

Hmmm …..sounds like a literal sweatshop, doesn’t it? The owners of the plant were the Ching family, who made millions in profits on the contract to make voting machines for ES&S. But the pay was abysmal for the workers on the factory floor.

15:30 Dan Rather: Vibar says that while the Chings made millions, their employees got sweatshop pay.

Eddie Vibar: And I also heard that when we going to make the voting machines…

our salaries for working on the voting machines would be four dollars per hour. (Emphasis added)

But the actual salary given to the voting machine workers…

was the minimum wage in the Philippines which was $2.15 or $2.50 per day. (Emphasis added)

With that backdrop of working conditions in the Teletech factory in Manila, let’s turn our attention to the quality control issues that were endemic to that factory. Just remember that over 97,000 of these machines were sold in the U.S. – and some of these were deployed in the recent controversial South Carolina election. Rather’s TV crew found it difficult to find factory workers who would speak on camera about their experiences. So here is one speaking from the shadows:

Hidden worker (translation on screen):

Of course, we have our jobs.

Of course, he can sue us, or fire us, or whatever. Or do something really bad.

But we also need to let people know what’s happening inside the plant.

11:50 Dan Rather: What was happening inside the plant? According to this employee and many others exhausted Filipino workers: rushed production, poor quality.

Hidden worker:

Well, when you need to ship them out, you really need to ship out.

When we say it’s a reject, no, they will say it’s still okay.

It seems they’re only concerned with the quantity of machines shipped from the plant.

For example, even with the rejects, they do something to make it work.

Just to make it good enough.

They don’t really think about what will happen when someone tries to use it.

That’s why we think it’s quantity not quality.

Everybody in the factory knows that.

Amazing, isn’t it? – factory managers weren’t concerned about someone actually trying to use the machines to cast a vote, but simply focused on getting more and more and more of these junk machines out the door to meet insane production goals. Plus, do you want to hear about the laughable quality test that was used to test these machines?! We hear from Eddie Vibar again.

Dan Rather: Vibar says he worked on thousands of voting machines shipped to the United States with what he says was virtually no testing done on them. Originally, a fraction of the machines underwent a so-called vibration test. And what was this quality control test for machines on which Americans would cast hundreds of thousands of votes?

Eddie Vibar: They shake the machine.

If there is something inside the machine like components or screws…

all of that gets shaken around inside the machine as well.

Dan Rather: This manual shake-test, would have been a joke at any quality electronics factory. But Vibar says that even this crude test was only done on a fraction of the machines. Why? Because, Vibar says, management didn’t want to slow down production.

If this were a situation comedy on TV, there would have to be a laugh track by this point. There is much more disturbing detail in the transcript, too much to include here – go read it if you’re interested. But the situation is too serious for giggles and guffaws – it involves the machines that are used for voting in may jurisdictions across the country – and these machines don’t have a voter-verified paper paper record that can be recounted and audited.

So when the Senate Democratic primary in the Palmetto state yielded bizarre results with the improbable victory of Alvin Greene over Vic Rawls, there was little to be done to overturn the results. Yes, indeed, computer geeks could do a forensic investigation of the memory cards and cartridges that contain the electronic records of the recent election. But this is not likely to happen. Nor would it solve the basic problem of non-recountable non-auditable voting machines.

The Executive Committee of the South Carolina Democratic Party voted to accept the election results, because there is no tangible reason to overturn an election based on rumors,  surmises and hypotheticals.

But if this situation makes you seethe with rage, then work to get rid of these machines. Root them out and toss them in the junkheap where they rightly belong. Channel your rage into productive political action.

Rage … rage … rage against the voting machines!

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