In the annals of election corruption, three places stand out more than all others: Chicago and New York, with their legendary tales of stuffed ballot boxes and the voting dead, and the old South, where African-Americans were systematically excluded from the vote for almost a century.
Mechanized balloting, cleanups of the rolls and federal voting rights laws changed much of that, and there wasn’t much talk of election cheating through the last two decades of the 20th century.
But with the new millennium came new voting technology and a spate of cheating allegations. It’s more than merely the hanging Florida chads that helped spur still ongoing charges of fraud. There is also Ohio.
By 2004, most Ohio counties were using touch-screen voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems, an Ohio-based company whose chairman and founder loudly promised President Bush he would “bring in Ohio for you.” When Ohio was narrowly decided that year, with counties using Diebold touch screen machines essentially providing Bush’s national margin of victory, charges of fraud rang out loudly from the left.
There were more such charges in an Ohio special election last fall, some activists even moaning that what happened might mark “the end of democracy.”
What happened there was indeed striking: The lone reputable pre-election poll done in that state, conducted by the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, found four major election-reform propositions either winning handily or too close to call. An initiative designed to ban corporate campaign donations, for one, led by 61-36 percent in the pre-election survey published two days before the vote.
But all four propositions lost, and the campaign finance restrictions went down by a 2-1 margin, almost an exact reversal of the pre-election poll. How could that poll have been so wrong on election reforms, when it was dead-on accurate on the only other issue on the ballot, a bond measure that passed easily?
It was manipulation of touch-screen voting machines that lack paper trails, charged the left-wing FreePress.org website. “Either the poll – dead accurate for one issue – was wildly wrong (on the other), or the electronic machines on which Ohio and much of the nation conduct their elections were hacked…”, charged FreePress.
“We’ve conducted our poll the same way for years,” said Darrel Rowland, the Dispatch public affairs editor who administered the poll. “But I just think we were wrong. There probably weren’t enough paperless touch screen counties to make that kind of difference. Still, it was kind of shocking to watch the results on Election Night.”
Nothing like that happened in last fall’s California special election, and elections officials say it won’t in this state’s primary, either. For sure, the last thing California needs in an era of extreme political divisions is questions about electoral integrity.
That’s why this state now requires all votes to be backed up by paper. This rule took effect with local elections earlier in the spring. In optical scan counties, the cards scanned by computers themselves make up a paper trail. In touch screen counties, voters will verify their votes on a small piece of paper, which will then be locked up even as the totals are tallied by computer. Those voter-verified paper trails will be the basis for any and all recounts.
The only flaw in this picture is that California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has certified many touch-screen machines for use despite open questions about their reliability and security.
Ohio also began demanding paper trails in its primary election earlier this spring. But California will go one step farther. In each county, one percent of all precincts will be chosen at random for hand counting even as the computer count proceeds. Hand counts must closely match the software totals before results can become official. The voter-verified paper trails will be used in all those random counts, under a new law signed last summer over objections from McPherson and some country voting registrars, who fretted about costs.
Yes, there can be problems even with these safeguards in place, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered when he showed up at the polls for last fall’s special election. The governor was told he had already voted. A few quick phone calls to voting officials revealed an employee testing the system a day or two before the election had typed in Schwarzenegger’s name as a sample voter. The entry had not been erased.
If it can happen to Schwarzenegger, it can happen to Joe Smith, and the betting here is Mr. Smith won’t get things fixed as fast, so it’s possible his vote could end up being recorded exactly opposite to his own wishes.
Today’s safeguards, then, are very far from perfect. But they are much better than what’s happened in worst-case states like Ohio and Florida.