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Follow nonexistent the paper trail: the technological advances in electronic voting machines rise accountability questions about today's democratic process.

After the U.S. map was fully colored in, polarized between the blue coasts and fringes on the one hand and the vast expanse of red in the middle on the other, after John Kerry gave his concession speech and blue voters started planning mourning parties, it didn't take long for bloggers and pundits to examine tally sheets and find some alarming details. Unlike the 2000 elections, though, it took more than a week for 2004's voting glitches and irregularities to really register on the mainstream media radar. By that time legions of Internet-based writers and theorists were already screaming "voter fraud" and calling for Kerry's "unconcession."

No one wants to look at any more hanging chads, not after the last time. Didn't we replace those silly things? Don't we have more modern and reliable ways of counting votes?

Whatever glitches were found in the 2004 elections, however, they weren't enough to reverse a Democratic defeat. Like it or not, Bush won. But his victory doesn't fix some of the essential problems with electronic voting machines that leave no paper trail or the dubious central tabulator computers that are as open to hacking as any other personal computer. And while the hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads of 2000 could at least be examined and debated, 2004 gave us something worse: a system whose accountability is decided by its software developers behind the closed doors of corporate offices.

Even if Kerry had waited until every single provisional ballot was counted, the electoral vote would have still tipped the scales in the GOP's favor. Looking at the glitches and irregularities, then, isn't about who resides in the White House until 2008 but about the way elections are conducted in the United States in general: the inner workings of the democratic process. "We had an election on November 2 that fell outside the zone of litigation. That does not mean we had an election that met acceptable standards." said international election attorney Patrick Merloe to the British Guardian. For example:

* In Gahanna, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, an electronic voting machine gave Bush 4,258 votes to Kerry's 260. But the precinct has only 800 voters, and only 365 of them voted Republican. Votes were recorded onto a malfunctioning cartridge.

* In Florida's Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, some tallies were counting backward. After reaching 32,000, the maximum number of votes that that particular software program could handle, the machine started subtracting votes instead of adding them.

* In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Cleveland is located, there appeared to be more votes cast than the number of registered voters in the region.

* A precinct in North Carolina lost 4,500 votes because a computer didn't hold as much data as officials originally thought.

* An Indiana county listed each of its precincts as having 300 voters for a total of 22,200 when in reality there's a total of 79,000.

* A voter in northern California had to cast a provisional ballot because someone else had already voted claiming to be him.

* Then, of course, there's that persistent, pesky issue of spoiled ballots of the hanging chad variety--Ohio, after all, is still predominantly punchcard country.

Exactly one year ago the Humanist ran a story about the unreliability of electronic voting machines, noting that they are programmed with unsecure software and are inauditable because they leave no paper trail. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) allocated $3.9 billion to replace punchcard ballots, used widely in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2000 and 2004, with electronic touch-screen machines. But such machines don't provide hardcopy confirmation of voting and their software remains the property of the companies that make them. Diebold Election Systems and Election Systems and Software, two of the most common voting machine manufacturers, both have Republican ties. Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell has held Republican Party fundraisers at his Columbus, Ohio, home and former ES&S chair Chuck Hagel, who owns more than $1 million worth of the company's stock, is a Nebraska senator.

The issue of software extends beyond touchscreen voting, however. All votes--be they from touch-screen machines, written fill-in-the-bubble forms of the standardized testing variety, or punchcard ballots that were so controversial four years ago--are eventually sent to a central computer for tallying. These "central tabulators" are regular PCs, like the kind found in homes and offices across the country, and use

software that could easily be tampered with.

One of the many election protection groups formed after the 2000 election is led by Bey Harris, a grandmother from Washington state whose book Black Box Voting exposed the dangers of entrusting a democratic election to a Windows-based system. As a guest on CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown, guest-hosted that particular evening by Howard Dean, Harris demonstrated how easy it is to tamper with votes when they are sent through this system. The Diebold software that tallies the votes takes information from a database program. Anyone accessing this database has merely to switch some numbers around to change the final outcome.

Just because it's possible to tamper with votes doesn't mean it's actually done, of course, but the possibility is there. With no paper trail from the touch-screen machines, tracking down the exact numbers becomes a futile endeavor.

In Florida, the number-crunching quandary pointed not at touch-screen machines but at optically scanned paper ballots. In counties using touch-screens, registered Democrat/Republican ratios were in line with Kerry/Bush votes. In counties using paper ballots, the ratios favored Bush, even among high numbers of registered Democrats.

One explanation offered for these anomalies is the "Dixiecrat" phenomenon: rural Southern occasional voters whose views generally fall on the conservative side but who remain registered as Democrats. "In Florida, as you go north, you go south," explained Cornell University professor Walter R. Mebane, Jr., to the Washington Post. The irregular numbers also didn't include independent voters who swung toward the right more in 2004 than in 2000--possibly because John Kerry, unlike Al Gore, was from the North. However, this trend only occurred in counties using optical scanners.

An election night irregularity that officials are having trouble explaining occurred in Warren County, Ohio. Due to long lines, this region was one of the last to weigh in to the state's total and tip the scales in the incumbent's favor. County officials closed the vote count off to the public and the press for reasons of "homeland security." "We consider that a red herringS' local news station director Bob Morford told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "That's something that's put up when you don't know what else to put up to keep us out"

Then there are the exit polls, normally an honest indicator of an election's outcome, predicting a

Democratic landslide in several key states. Writing for The Hill, a D.C. political paper, Republican pollster Dick Morris said, "Exit polls are almost never wrong.... To screw up one exit poll is unheard of. To miss six of them is incredible. It ... invites speculation that more than honest error was at play here" He then went on to imply that loyal blue pollsters somehow skewed the results.

Hypotheses about "what really happened" may come from both sides of the debate but the full story may take a while to surface. Bev Harris told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that she would file the largest Freedom of Information Act request in the history of the act to get to the bottom of the paperless touch-screen machine dilemma. Organizations like People for the American Way, MoveOn, and the League of Pissed Off Voters are undertaking independent investigations to establish whether or not anything resembling voter fraud occurred last November. Meanwhile, Democratic Representatives and House Judiciary Committee members John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler, and Robert Wexler submitted a letter to the Comptroller General of the United States requesting an investigation of electronic voting machines.

Ultimately, what all the different theories, glitches, and irregularities amount to is that the system is imperfect. While George W Bush won in 2004, the United States has a long way to go before its elections can stand up to the scrutiny of an informed public. The failing of electronic voting machines to produce a paper trail is an invitation for corruption or, at the very least, the appearance of corruption. "Democracy should not ever require leaps of faith," writes journalist William Rivers Pitt in a Truthout report, "and we have put the fate of our nation into the hands of machines that require such a leap."

Anna Kaplan is a proofreader for the Humanist and a Washington, D.C., area writer.
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Author:Kaplan, Anna
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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