Politics Mondays: E-Voting - Not Ready For Prime Time
by Faye M. Anderson
Thirty-nine years ago this month, 600 civil rights activists set out from Selma to Montgomery to breathe life into the constitutional guarantee of the right to vote without regard to race or color. As they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by billy club-swinging Alabama state troopers who assaulted them for daring to challenge Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black Americans.
With the rise of electronic voting machines, all Americans are at risk of disenfranchisement. Indeed, Jim_Crow.com is colorblind and nationwide. As one California voter told the San Diego Union-Tribune: "I've been voting 50 years and I've never been denied the right to vote before. This is like a banana republic."
The primaries are providing a preview of E-voting in America in the Nov. 2 election, when Election Data Services estimates that 50 million voters will cast their ballots on touchscreen machines. The primary elections have exposed the inherent unreliability of computerized voting. The high-tech hijinks include:
-- In the largest rollout of touchscreen machines of any local jurisdiction in the country, more than 1,000 voters were turned away from the polls in San Diego County. Forty percent of the polling places opened late because of malfunctioning machines.
--Similarly, nearly 20 percent of the polling places in Alameda County, Calif., had problems with the encoders that activate the touchscreen. Without the so-called smart cards, voters were left hanging like low-tech chads. Hundreds of voters were told to come back later.
-- In Orange County, Calif., 7,000 voters were given the wrong ballot. This e-ballot snafu may have affected the outcome of some local races.
-- In Maryland, "a small army" of computer experts was deployed to keep the machines from crashing and burning. Still, in Anne Arundel County, some voters had to cast provisional paper ballots.
-- Undervotes in Broward County, Fla., precincts with predominately senior voters have set off alarm bells. The same rate of undervotes would yield up to 4,000 uncounted ballots in November in a state where 537 votes decided the 2000 presidential race.
And in Palm Beach County, Fla., an electronic ballot mix-up frustrated some voters, one of whom told the Palm Beach Post: "I'm an American citizen, I'm a Vietnam veteran, and they took something I fought for away from me. We're over there trying to teach Iraq how to run a democracy, and we can't even get it right here."
In light of their performance, E-voting machines are clearly not ready for prime time. "So far, electronic voting is a lemon," California state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) told the Sacramento Bee. "Democracy is too important to be left to a machine, much less to a machine that is a lemon."
Election officials have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven technology. Paul Suh, a software developer at Apple Computers, told the Associated Press that E-voting technology is "exactly the same as what's sitting on your desktop. Are you willing to trust a system based on exactly the same (personal computer) technology to record your votes?"
Election officials and voting machine vendors hide behind the catchall "glitches" or "human error" to shield them from responsibility for voting irregularities. No one is held accountable because we are, after all, only human. And like stuff, glitches happen. And when the inevitable happens, only the vendors' programmers have access to the secret proprietary software that records and counts the votes. And inevitably, the problem is attributed to human error.
Just as troubling, the voting process is being privatized and controlled by a handful of Republican-leaning companies. The chairman and CEO of Diebold Election Systems, the second largest voting machine manufacturer, is a major fundraiser for President Bush. In a fundraising letter, Walden O'Dell wrote that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president next year."
Diebold will likely supply the voting machines for 40 of Ohio's 88 counties. In the event of a recount in this battleground state, Diebold's employees would have sole access to the votes. We, the people would have to trust Diebold to tell us who won the state, which its CEO has promised to "deliver" to Bush.
In the meantime, voters continue to lose faith in the integrity of the voting process. In Florida, for instance, an Associated Press exit poll found that 25 percent were less confident their votes will be counted accurately in the general election. About 10 percent were not at all confident.
Unlike the low turnout primary elections, tens of millions of voters will show up at the polls in November after the longest and nastiest presidential campaign in U.S. history. And the evenly divided electorate will be loaded for bear. The chips will hit the fan when they are told to return later because of computer glitches or human error.
Paperless voting is an Alice-in-Wonderland fix to the Florida paper ballot fiasco. We, the people must remain vigilant and resist the privatization of the sacred vote for which those marchers were brutally beaten on "Bloody Sunday." The civil rights generation defeated Jim Crow. The post-civil rights and hip-hop generations must fight to pull the plug on Jim_Crow.com. In doing so, we will help restore voters' trust in the electoral process and perhaps avoid a recount rerun with no way out.
Faye M. Anderson, the writer and producer of a documentary about the 2000 election debacle, is writing a book about electronic voting machines, "Democracy@Risk: The Perils of E-voting." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, March 22, 2004
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