VOTER VIRUS 

 
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Bexar County Elections Administrator Cliff Borofsky holds one of the county's new LCD touch screen voting machines. In most elections, the machines will replace the outdated and often problematic paper ballot. Photo by Mark Greenberg

Citizens urge using printed ballots to verify electronic voting

Imagine a future where a benevolent drug corporation invents a cure for voter apathy. Potential voters line up and receive a healing dose of "ballot booster." Presto! Suddenly, they are acutely interested in flocking to the polls to vote on amendments to the state constitution.

And when voters show up on Election Day, the hanging chad is replaced by a new electronic voting machine. When the polls are closed, the tally is almost instantaneously available. Everybody knows by the 9 p.m. newscast that the constitutional amendment to give more tax breaks to religious organizations was shot down.

A victory for democracy or not?

Enter Ron the Republican, faithful follower of the new, right-wing Christian movement. A computer programmer who works for the firm that supplied Bexar County with electronic voting machines, Ron writes the computer code for the machines, and includes a small glitch that turns those votes to maintain separation of church and state into a whopping majority in favor of the tax break on church-owned properties.

Is this a fantasy concocted by liberals who remain disturbed that the U.S. Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush to the office of president in 2000?

Not hardly.

Although the previous scenario was largely fictionalized - except for the churches' tax breaks - the use of electronic voting machines could spell an end to a democratic election process in the United States, according to a report by Bryn Mawr College computer science professor Rebecca Mercuri.

"I am adamantly opposed to the use of any fully electronic or Internet-based systems for use in anonymous balloting and vote tabulation applications," Mercuri wrote in 2001, after studying the concept for a decade. "Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated. Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system."

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires all Texas counties to use computerized voting in each precinct as of January 2006.

Bexar County has spent $8 million to purchase more than 2,200 electronic voting machines to replace its current stash of mechanical voting systems; they will be used for the September constitutional amendment vote. The Votronic machines, made by Election Systems & Software Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska, were not used in the May 6 City Council election, but were used in the board of trustees election in the Harlandale Independent School District.

"The system works," said Clifford R. Borofsky, county elections administrator. "It is cumbersome to program, but the system works. Time is a very big advantage, and we don't have as much paper to move or shuffle around."

Melinda Nickless, assistant director of elections for the Republican-controlled office of the Secretary of State, said Harris, Dallas, Collin, Tarrant, El Paso, Travis, and Brazos counties have already purchased and have used or will use electronic voting machines. "They have been approved by an examination board, which examined the code in which programs were written, where the data is stored, and are confident that the machines will allow a voter to cast a vote and record it accurately," she said.

But Nickless acknowledged that "a computer is only as good as the person who is setting it up."

"His `Senator Hagel's` company's computer-controlled voting machines showed he'd won stunning upsets in the primaries and the general election."
In Bexar County's case, one person who indirectly is setting up the computers is Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska. He is an investor in the McCarthy Group, the parent company of ES&S. Electronic voting machines were used when Hagel ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996 and, according to an article published on www.commondreams.org, "his company's computer-controlled voting machines showed he'd won stunning upsets in the primaries and the general election."

Hagel was the first Republican in 24 years to win a Senate seat in that state. The Hagel-affiliated machines were used again when he was re-elected in 2002, with 83 percent of the vote.

"What Hagel's website fails to disclose is that about 80 percent of those votes were counted by computer-controlled voting machines put in place by the company affiliated with Hagel. Built by that company. Programmed by that company," wrote Thom Hartmann in his article, "If You Want To Win An Election, Just Control The Voting Machines."

U.S. Representative Rush Holt, (D-New Jersey), has no faith in assurances that electronic voting systems would accurately reflect ballots cast by voters. There is no way to verify the vote - preferably on a paper ballot - before a voter exits the polling place.

"HAVA `the Help America Vote Act` ... is fueling a headlong rush by states and localities to purchase computer voting systems that suffer a serious flaw. It generates suspicion about the voting," Holt wrote in a preface to House Bill 2239, which would require that voting systems produce a voter-verified paper record for use in manual audits.

Direct Recording Electronic voting machines - touch screens already in use in some county precincts - should print a receipt that a voter can verify and place in a lockbox at the precinct in case of a recount.

Problems have already occurred in Texas. In 2002, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a computer programmer was called to a precinct to examine a machine that wasn't accepting ballots. He found that voting machines "were not crediting individual candidates with straight-party-ticket votes."

John Courage, former Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress and leader of Citizens for Ethical Government, agrees that voters' ballots should be verified on paper. CEG is trying to meet with Bexar County Commissioners and Borofsky to try and convince them to add a paper ballot to the electronic voting machines. The organization's Tuesday meeting with the commissioners was postponed, but CEG has a tentative schedule to attend a work session at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 29.

ESS, the manufacturer of Votronic, currently is beta-testing a verification system, but the extra mechanism would cost from $400 to $500 for each unit.

"We already experience diminishing voter turnout around the country," Courage maintains. "Many people fear that a blind faith reliance on the infallability of voting machines to totally manage the voting process and to determine the elections' outcome may actually reduce voting turnout. Many people rightly or wrongly have a deep suspicion of computers and technology. And a fear that through technology 'Big Brother' is creeping more and more into our private lives is certainly a concern many people express today." •


More by Michael Cary

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