Early and often: When voting machines need fixing

We voted in primaries on February 12. How can we be sure our votes were properly counted? We can trust and hope, but we cannot be certain.

Charlottesville uses DRE (directly recording electronic) voting machines. While the city brags that these are not touch-screen machines, because we turn a dial instead of touching a screen, the problems are the same. The machines we use have produced noticeable errors in some places around the country, such as on the final page for confirmation, displaying different selections from those the voter had made.

But the major danger lies in the unnoticeable.

Voters use the same machines in Houston, where a Rice University professor asked half his class to hack into one and leave no trace, and the other half to try to detect the hacking. About half the time, the changes to the software were able to shift the results without being detected. And there's no way for any precinct that uses these machines to know that they haven't been hacked.

The count at the end is what it is, and it may be right or wrong, but there's no way to check it.

Yes, election workers can be the best-intentioned and most diligent souls on the face of the earth (and most of them are), and they can keep the machines under constant surveillance, but– given the secret nature of the counting– how can they expect to persuade losing candidates that they lost and convince suspicious voters that their votes were counted?

The Virginia State Constitution bans secret vote counting, but Virginia's legislature allows the use of DREs. This is a problem that should be addressed in court. If there is a case under way, I haven't heard about it.

Instead, voting rights activists in Virginia can celebrate that the legislature has banned the purchase of any more DREs by localities. And advocacy groups are pushing new legislation that would permit and mandate recounts of paper ballots counted by optical scan machines.

Clearly, this is a step in the right direction. However, the notion that optical scan machines are the way to go is likely to lead many localities, including Albemarle and Charlottesville, to try to use their existing supply of DREs as long as possible, due to the financial cost of supplying optical scan machines. In any event, those machines have had as many problems as DREs, and they are not a real solution.

The real answer is hand-counted paper ballots. This answer is not cost-free. Workers need to be hired and trained to properly handle the paper ballots, to count them publicly and immediately on site, and to properly record and store them. Until then, here is where the city of Charlottesville's website asks us to place our faith:

Q: How do I know that my vote has been cast and counted?
A: Whenever a voter presses the CAST BALLOT button and the waving American flag appears, the vote is cast and counted.

Wouldn't it be nice if it were really that easy? In the past few elections and in recent primaries around the country, we've seen such problems as precincts turning out more voters than exist (is 110 percent voter turnout a positive achievement?), huge percentages of people voting in minor races but supposedly failing to vote at all in key contests, results that differ from unadjusted exit polls by unheard-of margins, people forced to wait 12 hours to vote, people turned away in the general election who voted in the same location in the primaries, flyers advising Democrats to vote the day after the election, and dozens of other problems– most of them based on electronic voting machines, and most– but definitely not all– swinging votes in favor of Republicans. How can we be sure Charlottesville is immune from fraud or error?

The new film Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections by David Earnhardt, tells the story of the 2004 and 2006 elections powerfully and convincingly. A free screening of the film with a discussion led by the filmmaker is planned locally.

Viewers will, I think, leave the screening with a very different view of recent history than the party line would have us believe. The film presents evidence suggesting that the Democratic Party landslide in 2006 fell far short of what voters actually voted for, that George Bush has never once been elected president, and that the solution to the 2000 Florida debacle (the solution of buying electronic voting machines) took a relatively small problem and made it enormous.

Uncounted is a nonpartisan take on the issue and presents evidence of Democratic fraud as well as Republican. It also suggests some solutions.
Full-time liberal activist David Swanson is pleased that more than one local publication has found this essay worthy of publication.
Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections screens tonight, February 21, at 7pm at Sojourner's Church in Charlottesville.

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