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American Elections are a Joke (english)
by Ronnie Dugger
Email: jpchance (nospam) egroups.com
Address: 72 Peterborough Street, Boston MA 02215 USA
05 Nov 2002
The last line of the official, back-to-the-wall defense of computerized vote counting is, "Trust us." But in vote counting, we should trust no one. That is why we watched each other counting the votes in the old days. Computerized vote counting is simply an inappropriate use of technology in a democracy. I suggest that people throw out Vote-O-Matics and DREs and consider going back to counting their own paper ballots....
Democracy Under Stress
Ronnie Dugger is the author of biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and founder of the Alliance for Democracy, a national
populist organization. He has been reporting on the history of
elections and the dangers of computerized vote counting since 1987
and is writing a book on the subject.
SOMERVILLE, MASS. -- Never before November 2000 has a major political
party contended that computers' vote counts are more accurate than
those of people looking at the ballots and at each other looking at
James A. Baker III, leading the charge of the George W. Bush campaign
to stop people's recounting of their own ballots in Florida,
righteously exclaimed that the "precision machinery" that counted and
recounted the votes for president in the state was more accurate than
the recounts by people provided for in Florida law. Manual counting,
Baker said, entailed subjective decisions, human error and politics.
Rejecting the idea of the people of Florida recounting all the votes
they cast for president, which would take about a week, Baker said
that would just be extending a flawed process statewide.
The vote-counting systems in Florida are not precision machinery,
such as adding machines. They are computers, which are machines that
obey orders. The antique Vote-O-Matic punch-card voting systems in
use in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the canvassing boards
are recounting ballots, have been associated for 25 years with
inaccuracies caused by slipping card feeds and "hanging chads," which
are tiny scraps of punched-out vote holes that do not fully detach
from the vote card. In effect, the Bush campaign has declared that
computer vote counting precludes citizens' recounting their own
ballots in the third of the country where the rickety, often
error-prone Vote-O-Matic machines are used in elections.
Last week, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR),
which has been studying Vote-O-Matic-type counting systems for more
than 10 years, said that the Vote-O-Matic system "has inherent
accuracy limitations" and that "careful manual counting of
Vote-O-Matic ballots should always be more accurate than machine
In this system, voters punch out holes beside candidates' names on a
card, and the card is passed through a card reader that shoots light
through the holes and counts up the votes--that is, the points of
light coming through the holes--for each candidate. Sometimes, CPSR
said, two ballot cards are sucked into the system's card reader at
one time. "Hanging chad can flip open and close. Detached chad can
become stuck in the feed path, increasing double feeds and misfeeds.
. . . Detached chad can jam over the light or sensor, causing holes
[that is, votes] to not be read until the chad blows out of the way."
Peter Neumann, a senior computer scientist at SRI International and
one of the leading authorities on computerized vote counting in the
country, was similarly skeptical of precision vote-counting
machinery. "The Vote-O-Matic is not accurate enough; there's hanging
and floating chad and so on," he said. "But hand counting is
substantially more accurate in reporting the true intent of the
More in point, Neumann says, is the comparability of what happened to
former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay of Florida in his 1988 race for the U.S.
Senate, which he lost by fewer than 35,000 votes out of more than 4
"Undervotes"--the failure of votes to register on a voted
ballot--occurred on about 10,000 ballots in Palm Beach County this
year, where Vice President Al Gore has strong support. In 1988, in
MacKay's four Democratic stronghold counties, there were 210,000
people who voted for president but did not vote in the U.S. Senate
race. In a comparable U.S. Senate race in a presidential-election
year--1980--in the same four counties, three out of every 100
presidential voters did not vote for senator; in 1988, 14 of every
100 did not. In the entire state of Florida, excluding the four
MacKay counties, fewer than one of 100 presidential
voters--25,000--were not recorded as also voting in the Senate race.
Three of the MacKay counties in 1988 are among Gore's big four
MacKay believed "very strongly" that the Senate election was stolen
from him. He suspected, as a reason for the vote drop-off, the use,
in the questioned counties, of a ballot layout that crowded the
Senate race onto the bottom of the same page with the presidential
race. The voting electorate for president dropped to 86% for the
Senate, then jumped back up to 97% for secretary of state.
Suspecting, too, "a problem in the [computerized vote-counting]
software," MacKay asked that his campaign be permitted to examine it
in five counties, but was refused on grounds that it was the secret
property of the election-business companies. "A damned outrage," he
said of this.
Had Bush accepted Gore's offer to consent to and abide by a manual
recount of the entire state of Florida, such a recount would also
have provided a statewide test of the computer codes used to tally
Floridians' votes, and any vote-counting codes that came into
question would have become primary evidence in the fight for the
presidency. Neither side has sought to impound the codes, even though
they are part of the evidence of how the votes were counted and
should be protected from tampering, just as the ballots are. Perhaps
especially in Miami-Dade County, where the canvassing board has voted
not to conduct a hand recount of all the votes, the vote-counting
codes should be sequestered for testing.
Never before in this century have Americans been so mesmerized by
vote counting. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)
and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are all calling for a study or
investigation of computerized voting machines. This is indeed the
time for a thorough reconsideration of the whole U.S. voting
landscape, which has grown wild in the shadows as 10,500 local
election boards have selected their vote-counting equipment from a
fast-changing variety of private vote-counting companies in what is
called "the election business," a minuscule, but politically
important subdivision of the computer industry.
About one-third of Americans still must cast their votes on the
Vote-O-Matic punch-card system. The only reason it's still in place
in so many jurisdictions is the cost and trouble of replacing it.
Election officials well know that it is an inaccurate system--some of
them speak laughingly of "chadology"--but some states have required
mandatory recounts in close elections, and the ballots are always
available to recount. As many Americans probably would agree now, the
use of this system should be outlawed.
"Mark sense," "optical-scan" systems are, in effect, the Vote-O-Matic
without the punch card. The voter is given a paper ballot and votes
with pencil or pen; the ballot is run through a card reader, which
tabulates the marks. One important question about these systems is
the error rate--how many ballots are misread or disqualified because
the card readers don't like the way the voters marked them or because
of stray marks on them? In any event, the retained ballots are
available for manual recounts. About 27% of Americans now vote on
Old 1,000-pound mechanical-lever machines are still used in some
jurisdictions, including New York City, where Board of Elections
leader Doug Kellner estimates that 1.5% of the voters lose their
votes because they don't know they are supposed to leave down all the
levers they press until they pull down the red handle to record their
vote. But in the mid-1980s, New York City embarked on a misbegotten
scheme to replace the lever machines with the very latest thing in
That is the "direct-recording electronic" (DRE) systems in which the
voter literally votes on a computer and all tabulation and audit
trails are contained within the computer. The voter marks no ballot;
there is no audit trail outside the computer. With officious
bureaucratic and political fanfare, the city signed a $60-million
contract with Sequoia Pacific Systems in 1993 for the technology. But
Kellner, Neumann and others refused to believe the system could be
made secure. This summer, for a variety of reasons, the city canceled
its contract, sustaining a loss of about $17 million.
This was an enormous setback for DRE voting systems, but they are now
reported to be voted on by 9% of the American people. Wherever they
are in place, citizens are voting blind and accepting insiders'
announced vote counts while having no way of double-checking them
with manual recounts.
With New York City facing the question of what to do now, Kellner has
called for a new study of the technologies available. He warns that
electronic vote counting "is almost completely unverifiable because
of the technical complexity. Electronic machines are the equivalent
of having a pair of computer technicians take a paper ballot box into
a sealed room and then telling us the vote totals without anyone able
to observe the count." But he indicates his tentative preference for
"a scannable paper system, where the ballot is scanned at the poll
site and retained by the scanning machine for subsequent verification
and hand recount, if necessary," a system of decentralized
computerized vote counting.
I am wondering, myself, about vote counting, what the hell is the
hurry? The media demand instant results, but that has nothing to do
with good government. The last line of the official, back-to-the-wall
defense of computerized vote counting is, "Trust us." But in vote
counting, we should trust no one. That is why we watched each other
counting the votes in the old days. Computerized vote counting is
simply an inappropriate use of technology in a democracy. I suggest
that people throw out Vote-O-Matics and DREs and consider going back
to counting their own paper ballots. Let's have a revolt in some of
our precincts. Tell the politicians and the election companies,
Hey!--We are going to count our own ballots together. Election night,
we'll bring in coffee and doughnuts, pizza, and have a party, as if
we can still enjoy democracy with our neighbors. Will they put us in
jail for counting our own ballots? Let's find out.