Today, and certainly for the first time in any living American’s memory, there is some reasonable fear and uneasiness regarding the election process itself. And now, as the date approaches for perhaps one of the most important elections in United States history, a number of disquieting factors are emerging.
Amid an atmosphere where some security officials from the current GOP administration have publicly hinted – perhaps testing voter tolerance by sending up the idea as a ‘trial balloon’- that it might be necessary to postpone the election because of undefined ‘terrorist threats,’ there are other very well defined actions underway that should also be of concern to all Americans.
It’s important, of course, to take note of the fact anyone in public office would even consider postponing an election – regular elections have never been postponed, not even during the Civil War when in places the battlefront was only a mile or two away – yet today there are even more immediate concerns than review of such a radical suggestion as postponing the election itself.
The largest potential problem centers on what was supposed to be a solution to the questionable vote count in Florida that gave the presidency to George W. Bush([search]). The GOP Congress and the Bush Administration have pushed hard for computerized voting systems as a means of assuring smoother elections, but now it appears that smoother elections may not be democratic elections. Yet nearly $4 billion was allocated to modernize voting systems, and it seems clear that the bulk of those tax dollars went to companies with strong ties to the GOP.
There are several companies producing computerized voting systems, but the two most prominent are Diebold Election Systems of Ohio and Elections Systems & Software of Nebraska. Owners and executives of both companies, coincidentally, have deep roots within the Republican Party.
Party affiliation, of course, should and would be irrelevant if it weren’t for the partisan actions of some of the executives, which have been underscored by problems with the systems themselves.
The CEO and chairman of the board of Diebold, Walden ‘Wally’ O’Dell, has been more than just a registered Republican, he has been an activist. A year ago this September he opened his huge Columbus, Ohio mansion to a $1,000 a plate fundraiser for George W. Bush, and since then has been an honored guest at Bush’s Texas ranch. He has also pledged to raise more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign. But what many people felt was most telling of all was a letter he wrote to Mr. Bush last fall declaring he would be “helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President.”
This was, to say the least, an inappropriate statement from the head of the company that has installed most of Ohio’s new computerized voting machines.
The new machines, technically called Direct Recording Electronic Systems, (DREs), have increasingly been the focus of criticism. As Internet News pointed out in a story by Roy Mark in late July, “The manufacturers of these machines promised improved user interfaces, voter confirmation and instant running tabulations. What they’ve gotten instead is lawsuits.”
Courts in states from California to the East Coast have suits pending or in process contesting the use of the new machines, particularly because the DREs produce no paper trail, no documentation of the vote, which of course means that there is virtually no way to resolve a challenge or a question by going back and doing a hand tally.
California has in fact taken action and decertified about half of the DREs that were to be used in this November’s election. “Missouri says it will not certify any DREs that can’t produce paper receipts and 88 counties in Ohio are seeking alternatives to DREs,” Mark reports, noting that “Maryland activists are seeking similar restraints on DREs.”
But Diebold isn’t the only major voting machine company that has been shown to have strong and activist GOP ties, or which has been criticized for its equipment and track records. In fact, Diebold is considerably smaller than ES&S, but this huge company flies under the public/media radar much more efficiently, partly because it is harder to keep track of its various corporate names, let alone its intricate business machinations.
Alexander Bolton, writing in The Hill, explains that, “Election Systems & Software, (ES&S)…makes nearly half the voting machines used in the United States…ES&S is a subsidiary of (the) McCarthy Group, Inc., which is jointly held by the holding firm and the Omaha World-Herald Co., which publishes (Nebraska’s) largest newspaper…”*
And Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, of the Columbia Free Press, note that, “While Diebold has received the most attention, it actually isn’t the biggest maker of computerized elections machines. That honor goes to Omaha-based ES&S, and its Republican roots may be even stronger than Diebold’s. The firm, which is privately held, began as a company called Data Mark, which was founded in the early 1980s by Bob and Todd Urosevich. In 1984, brothers William and Robert Ahmanson bought a 68 percent stake in Data Mark and changed the company’s name to American Information Services (AIS). Then, in 1987, McCarthy & Co., an Omaha investment group, acquired a minority share in AIS.” **
But by the early ‘90’s, McCarthy & Co., were clearly important players in the voting machine company, whose corporate names often seem interlocking if not interchangeable, a situation which of course adds to the public and media confusion over the company’s widespread role in computerized voting.
According to Fritrakis and Wasserman, “In 1992, investment banker Chuck Hagel, president of McCarthy & Co., became chairman of AIS. Hagel, who had been touted as a possible (Nebraska) Senate candidate in 1993, was again on the list of likely GOP contenders heading into the 1996 contest. In January of 1995, while still chairman of ES&S, Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald that he would likely make a decision by mid-March of 1995. On March 15, according to a letter provided by Hagel’s Senate staff, he resigned from the AIS board, noting that he intended to announce his candidacy. A few days later he did just that.
“A little less than eight months after stepping down as director of AIS, Hagel surprised national pundits and defied early polls by defeating Benjamin Nelson, the State’s popular former governor. It was Hagel’s first try for public office. Nebraska elections officials told The Hill that machines made by AIS probably tallied 85 percent of the votes cast in the 1996 vote, although Nelson never drew attention to the connection. Hagel won again in 2002, by a far healthier margin. That vote is still angrily disputed by Hagel’s Democratic opponent, Charlie Matulka, who did try to make Hagel’s ties to ES&S an issue in the race and who asked that state elections officials conduct a hand recount of the vote. That request was rebuffed, because Hagel’s margin of victory was so large.” ***
“An official at Nebraska’s Election Administration estimated that ES&S machines tallied 85 percent of the votes cast in Chuck Hagels 2002 and 1996 election races,”****
Bolton also asserts that “in a disclosure form filed in 1996, covering the previous year, Chuck Hagel, then a Senate candidate, did not report that he was still chairman of AIS for the first 10 weeks of the year, as he was required to do.” He concludes, “Hagel’s unrecorded stake in the voting systems company poses an apparent conflict of interest on election reform issues. Three companies, including ES&S, stand to make a large profit from election reform legislation enacted last year by Congress.”
Ironically, there seems to be evidence that electronic voting, rather than being a potential cure for the year 2000 debacle in Florida – as Congress declared it would be when it approved the billions of dollars since spent on computerized voting – there is now evidence that it was in fact part of the problem in Florida during the Bush/Gore contest.
“‘If the Republican ties at Diebold and ES&S (and AIS) aren’t enough to cause concern,’ argues election reform activist Bev Harris, the companies’ past performances and current practices should be…the rush to embrace computerized voting, of course, began with Florida. But, in fact, one of the Sunshine State’s election-day disasters was the direct result of a malfunctioning computerized voting system; a system built by Diebold. The massive screw up in Volusia County was all but lost in the furor over hanging chads and butterfly ballots in South Florida. In part that’s because county elections officials avoided a total disaster by quickly conducting a hand recount of the more than 184,000 paper ballots used to feed the computerized system. But the huge computer miscount led several networks to incorrectly call the race for Bush.”
“The first signs that the Diebold-made system in Volusia County was malfunctioning came early on election night, when the central ballot-counting computer showed a Socialist Party candidate receiving more than 9,000 votes and Vice President Al Gore getting minus 19,000. Another 4,000 votes poured into the plus column for Bush that didn’t belong there. Taken together, the massive swing seemed to indicate that Bush, not Gore, had won Florida and thus the White House. Election officials restarted the machine, and expressed confidence in the eventual results, which showed Gore beating Bush by 97,063 votes to 82,214. After the recount, Gore picked up 250 votes, while Bush picked up 154. But the extreme numbers had already been sent to the media.”
“‘What’s particularly troubling,’ Harris says, ‘is that the errors were caught only because an alert poll monitor noticed Gore’s vote count going down through the evening, which of course is impossible.’ Diebold blamed the bizarre swing on a ‘faulty memory chip,’ which Harris claims is simply not credible. The whole episode, she contends, could easily have been consciously programmed by someone with a partisan agenda. Such claims might seem far-fetched, were it not for the fact that a cadre of computer scientists showed a year ago that the software running Diebold’s new machines can be hacked with relative ease.”
“Equally troubling, of course, is the fact the touch-screen systems Diebold, ES&S, and other companies have on the market now aren’t designed to generate a polling place paper trail. While ES&S says it is open to providing voters receipts, and has even designed a prototype machine that does so, the company isn’t going to roll that prototype into production until state and federal election officials make it mandatory.” *****
“‘We cannot achieve perfectly secure systems; such things do not exist. But on the spectrum of terrible to very good, we are sitting at terrible,’ John Hopkins University’s Aviel Rubin told a congressional panel…(adding that) ‘not only have the vendors not implemented security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy.’” ******
But there are options becoming available, if voters demand them and therefore motivate their legislators to make them mandatory. One possibility was shown at an Ohio trade fair held earlier this summer. “One such product, called TruVote, provides two separate voting receipts. The first is shown under Plexiglas and displays the choices made by a vote on the touch screen. This copy falls into a lockbox after the voter approves it…” *******
It might, of course, behoove legislators to become more active on this issue, since an unfair or controlled election cannot always be expected to favor incumbents.
Bradley Report August 22, 2004
* Alexander Bolton in The Hill, January 29, 2003.
** Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, of the Columbia Free Press, article published in Mother Jones, March 2004.
**** Alexander Bolton, The Hill, 1/29/03.
***** Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, of the Columbia Free Press, article published in Mother Jones, March 2004.
****** Roy Mark, Internet News, July 23, 2004.
******* Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, of the Columbia Free Press, article published in Mother Jones, March 2004.