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COVER STORY | Vol. 6, No. 35, August 31, 2006
(Red, White & Screwed)

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Red, White & Screwed

by Duwayne Escobedo

Will Your Vote Count?

You only thought the 2000 Florida election was a disaster.

Get ready for 2006.

Chads will be replaced by DREs among dirty words in the state's election system.

In case you don't know yet, and you will, DREs stands for Direct Recording Electronic voting systems. It's a fancy term for touch-screen voting machines.

Susan Pynchon, along with thousands of other voting rights activists across the state, plans to wave "Don't Touch the Touch Screens" signs at polling sites in Volusia County where she lives and votes.

"It's just like science fiction, except it's real," says Pynchon, Florida Fair Elections Coalition executive director. "Touch screens pose a risk to our democracy and nation that our Founding Fathers never contemplated. The machines are a huge, huge problem."  

Voter Action Co-Director Lowell Finley says the potential for problems on the scale of 2000, or worse, are real. The Berkeley, Calif., attorney, who has practiced election law for two decades, is a leading litigant in the country on electronic voting problems.

"It's like locking the front door but leaving the back door wide open," he says about touch-screen security. "They're not capable of being completely foolproof. There are mistakes in the software and the possibility of tampering with it. We've consulted with all the top computer scientists around the United States on the software security issues and they've all told us one thing: 'It isn't currently possible to create technology that is 100-percent secure and trying to do that would be so cost prohibitive, it wouldn't be reasonable to provide those systems.'"

But look Escambia County Elections Supervisor David Stafford right in the eye and ask "Will my vote count?" and he answers: "Yes, absolutely. Every vote cast by eligible voters is going to be counted."

Pat Hollarn never minces words. The Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections has been a member of the National Task Force on Election Reform since 2001. She calls claims by Pynchon, Finley and other electronic voting critics, "preposterous."

"The only way to hack into the system is with a hacksaw," she says. "These are Chicken Littles. Whackos. They just won't be happy until we go back to paper ballots that are hand counted, which is the most flawed way of tabulating votes, not to mention you won't get results until Easter."

Casting electronic ballots is becoming the norm across the country, but the technology is still troublingly vulnerable, many voting experts say. Many groups, such as Voter Action, want paperless voting machines replaced with ones in which voters mark ballot cards that are counted in optical scanning machines and could be checked, if any dispute ensues.

In fact, New York and New Mexico lawmakers mandated their touch screens produce paper trails this year, joining two dozen other states in implementing such requirements.

Florida is not one of those states.

Currently, 15 of Florida's 67 counties will vote in the primary Sept. 5 and general election Nov. 7 entirely on touch screens, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which were in the eye of the storm known as the 2000 presidential election, when President George W. Bush edged out former Vice President Al Gore by a mere 537 votes.

Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties all use blended systems with both optical scanner and touch-screen machines.

It was the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election that moved the U.S. Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002. It intended for modern, computerized voting systems to become uniform across the country and prevent future problems. The Florida Legislature also passed massive reforms in 2005 that pushed touch screens, among other things.

But voting advocates say the good intentions far exceed the technology. They point to several cases in Florida and around the country. For example, consider:

• In Pinellas County during a test earlier this month its nearly 70 touch-screen machines accurately reported the total votes for each candidate and the totals reported matched the votes cast. But there was one tabulation mistake—undervotes. Undervotes, as you likely recall from the 2000 election, happen when a voter doesn't cast a vote in a race. The computer system misreported 750 undervotes taking them away from some races and assigning them to others.

It prompted St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler to conclude that the flaw "shows the Wild West state of Florida's procedures. Tallahassee's refusal to heed cries for stricter scrutiny of electronic voting to reassure the public is downright perverse."

• Touch-screen machines failed in a March 9, 2004, Democratic presidential primary to record votes in 1 out of 100 votes, which is eight times the number of flawed votes cast on optical scanners, an analysis by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel discovered.

It also reported that undervotes occurred 1.09 percent of the time in counties with touch-screen machines and 0.12 percent of the time in counties with optical scanning. In fact, only three of the 39 counties using optical scanners performed worse than the best touch-screen counties, the in-depth analysis showed.

The examination reviewed 350,000 ballots statewide in which there was only one choice on the ballot—the Democratic Party presidential nominee.

• A Miami-Dade county elections official found in 2003 that the Nebraska-based Elections Systems & Software iVotronic touch screen voting machines—the same ones used in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties—lost votes and voting machines were not being accounted for in the computer system's audit log records, which records every activity in a machine from the moment it's started until it's shut down.

• In an election last year in Pennsylvania, 10,000 votes in three counties were not counted in the 2004 Presidential election. Then in a May 2006 primary about 200 machines in Philadelphia experienced problems.

• New Mexico voters allege in a lawsuit there that touch-screen machines in the 2004 election repeatedly switched their votes from their choice to another candidate. No one knows how many votes were switched unnoticed.

In 2002, Sequoia Voting Systems' Edge touch screens lost nearly 13,000 votes because of a computer glitch. The Sequoia Edge voting machines are now currently equipped with voter verifiable, auditable "paper trail" printers, as required by a recently enacted New Mexico law.

Although company officials for major companies, such as Sequoia and ES&S, and elections officials defend the electronic voting, Finley says the machines today remain error prone and vulnerable to tampering.

"There's no evidence that the problems have been fixed, particularly when it comes to security and undervotes," says Finley, who currently has suits in California, Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere.

He adds: "The problems continue to occur. The (company and election officials) haven't produced any evidence that any fixes have been done. We can safely predict there will be unreliability problems with all electronic voting systems. Machines will switch votes right before our eyes. It's occurred in every election. There's no reason to believe it won't occur again."

Other elections experts agree.

David Dill, a nationally recognized expert in electronic voting testified for the bipartisan commission on election reform led by former President Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, which suggested numerous election reforms late last year.

Dill told the Carter-Baker commission: "Paperless e-voting technology is almost totally opaque. No one can scrutinize critical  processes of the election, such as the collection of ballots and counting  of votes, because those processes occur invisibly in electronic circuits. Voters have no means to confirm that the machines have recorded their votes correctly, nor will they have any assurance that their votes won't be changed later."

And earlier this year, a report by Finnish security expert Harri Hursti analyzed Diebold voting machines for an organization called Black Box Voting. Hursti found vulnerabilities in the machines that allowed the touch-screen software to be altered in only a few minutes of pre-election access.

Hursti reported opening up a Diebold machine and inserting a PC card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give control to the violator. The machine could go dead on Election Day or throw votes to the wrong candidate. Worse, he concluded, it's even possible for such ballot-tampering software to trick authorized technicians into thinking that everything is working just fine.

Diebold internal e-mails, which can still be read on the Internet, confirm the vote count vulnerabilities.

All those facts have Janet deLorge concerned about software mistakes or hackers in the 2006 elections. The League of Women Voters Pensacola Bay Area co-president would like to see touch screens have a paper trail, just in case.

"People should be assured there vote will be recorded," she says. "We've had too many foul ups in our system in the past. It's imperative we correct some of these weaknesses."

Meanwhile, Escambia County spent $720,000 on 110 ES&S touch-screen voting machines to meet laws set by state and federal lawmakers, who also aided in the buys. Santa Rosa County paid $231,000 for 77 of the same computer voting systems. Okaloosa County put $287,000 toward 82 Diebold systems.

All three county's election supervisors report no glitches and say voters just love using the touch screens.

"People really like it," says Ann Bodenstein, who's office is employing the touch screens for the first time in this primary election. "They're just amazed at how much quicker it is."

Escambia and Okaloosa have both used their newly purchased touch-screen machines in local elections held earlier this year and in early voting that's ongoing.

Stafford says in 1,200 votes cast in the March 20 referendum on renewing Escambia County's 1-cent sales tax and in about 2,500 votes cast during early voting for the Sept. 5 primary, so far, every vote on the touch screens was recorded without a glitch.

Although he expresses complete confidence in the system he also says about fraud or tampering, "I will not say it's an impossibility when people have hacked into Department of Defense computers and into banking systems. But I believe we've built in as many checks and balances as possible."

Glitches are nothing knew to Escambia County. Earlier this year, election officials worried the state's new, multi-million dollar central voter database would make it appear that legitimate absentee voters were trying to vote twice in Escambia and 13 other Florida counties.

And in 2004, Escambia County reported having the highest voter turnout, 84.9 percent, before then-Elections Supervisor Bonnie Jones found that the optical scanner tabulation machines incorrectly tallied and fed absentee votes to its computer system.

Stafford says after the 2008 presidential election his office will consider switching completely to touch screens.

He says if voters and groups, like the League of Women Voters, back the machines having paper trails in the future, he would support that move.

"It's very, very important that we maintain public trust," he says. "We cannot lose faith in the system like we did in 2000. I have a lot of confidence in the system and believe a lot of the problems can be traced back to human error."

Even Gov. Jeb Bush came to the defense of state elections recently, after Democratic gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Jim Davis charged during a debate that Bush and the Legislature have been "contemptuous" of elections, which need to be "free and fair" again.

"We've had free and fair elections in Florida," Bush says. "We had a tight election with incredible scrutiny in 2000. We standardized our election procedures. We upgraded our elections equipment. We're a model for the country. And this notion you can keep going back to that well over and over again, it shows you how tired the Democratic candidates are. They have no ideas, so they just pull this one out again. It doesn't work. No one's buying all that. It's yesterday's news."

Still, Pynchon isn't convinced. She says she doesn't understand the statewide or countrywide move to touch-screen voting, with documented software errors, the potential for tampering, inadequate tech support from companies, the lack of poll worker training and potentially longer waits and lines on the touch screens compared to optical scanners.

"The only way to tell if our elections are free and fair is to be able to count paper ballots, if there's a catastrophic failure," says Pynchon, who quit her job as a Realtor to help monitor elections. "All the other states are going to paper trails. Well, in Florida, you can't do that. I don't think the Legislature or elections officials want a manual recount again."


duwayne@inweekly.net