Watching Mexico live through a controversial presidential election was like holding up a mirror to our own election difficulties in recent years. As we round the corner and head toward the upcoming November elections – with control of the Congress up for grab – what can Americans expect? Will our votes count? There is both cause for worry, as well as signs that effective voting reform advocacy is paying off.
The root cause of our troubled elections is that, unbelievably, the U.S. provides less security, testing and oversight of our nation’s voting equipment and election administration than it does to slot machines and the gaming industry. Our elections are administered by a hodgepodge of over 3000 counties scattered across the country with minimal national standards or uniformity. Widely differing practices on the testing and certification of voting equipment, the handling of provisional and absentee ballots, protocols for recounts and training of election officials and poll workers makes for a bewildering terrain.
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The three federal laboratories testing voting equipment and software operate with little government oversight. They are called “independent testing authorities,” even though two of them have donated tens of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates and the Republican National Committee. The shoddy testing and certification procedures are greased by a revolving door between government regulators and the industry. Former secretaries of state from California, Florida and Georgia, once their state’s chief regulator, became paid lobbyists for the corporate vendors after stepping down from public office, as did a former governor of New Hampshire. Several secretaries of state in 2004 served as co-chairs of the George W. Bush re-election campaign for their state; one of these oversaw the election in which he ran – successfully – for governor.
Conflicts of interest have crept like a weed into nearly every crevice of election administration. Making matters worse, the powers-that-be appear uncertain about what a secure election administration system actually looks like. This was painfully obvious at the Voting Systems Testing Summit in November 2005, which marked the first time that top federal regulators, vendors, testing laboratories, election administrators, computer scientists and fair elections advocates came together in one place. No one could articulate a comprehensive inventory of the many problems in securing the vote, much less the solutions. Instead, there was a lot of finger pointing and excuses.
Clearly, the biggest threat to the integrity of our elections is not the shortcomings of any particular type of computerized voting equipment but the fact that – like the failed rescue effort following Hurricane Katrina – no one seems to be steering the ship. There is no central brain or team that has a handle on all aspects of the process, developing best practices or a roadmap that states and counties can follow. Tragically, while Congress has appropriated $3 billion for buying new voting equipment, the money is arriving before there are necessary standards in place to ensure the money is not wasted.
Yet these legitimate concerns also must be kept in perspective, lest we spiral into a paralyzing paranoia. There are a number of positives. Election security activists are more mobilized than ever and they are having an impact. They have raised the profile of these issues to the point of national urgency. Their efforts, once considered the actions of fanatical gadflies, are being increasingly cited by respected election bureaucrats. Former President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State James A. Baker III were co-chairs of a 2005 bipartisan commission, which warned that “software can be modified maliciously before being installed into individual voting machines. There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry any more than in other industries.”
Reform advocates’ increased credibility has resulted in real action, with several governors and secretaries of state taking matters into their own hands. Some states are now requiring a “voter verified paper audit trail” (VVPAT). Election security advocates have also begun filing lawsuits as a way to block state and election officials’ efforts to use touch-screen equipment that lack a VVPAT. So far, lawsuits in nearly a dozen states have been filed, with the embattled terrain becoming tense and increasingly high-stakes.
Another positive development is the use in half of all counties of optical-scan machines that read hand-marked paper ballots (up from 41 percent in 2000), since at least the paper ballot can be used as an audit trail. And the use of punchcard voting equipment, which was badly discredited during the 2000 presidential vote count in Florida, has declined from 18 percent of counties in 2000 to just under four percent today.
Heading into the 2006 election, fair election advocates need to remain vigilant. Almost bizarrely, vigilance will be aided by the noncompetitive nature of our winner-take-all elections. In the contest over control of Congress, the battleground has become extremely shrunken with only 30-35 out of 435 U.S. House seats and perhaps six to eight races in the Senate up for grabs. That means efforts to monitor elections can occur over a smaller playing field, allowing targeted vigilance.
In the longer term, activists must turn their efforts to a more visionary agenda that will ensure fair and secure elections. That agenda must include: 1) elections run by nonpartisan and unbiased election officials; 2) professionalization and training of election officials and poll workers, and 3) a national elections commission that can partner with states and counties to create national, uniform standards for running elections. Looking even further, the U.S. should consider following the lead of other nations and create “public interest voting equipment,” where government contracts with the sharpest minds in the private sector to develop open source software and voting equipment that is owned and managed by the government instead of by shadowy corporations.
The current state of election administration is very much like the repeated warnings in New Orleans about the vulnerability of its levees. Without modernization of our administrative practices, as well as better public oversight and vigilance, our elections will remain vulnerable to breakdown and allegations of fraud.
Steven Hill is director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.