Stop Party Hacks

The US House of Representatives, on a near-party-line vote on Sept. 20, passed a bill to require every voter to present a government-issued ID card to cast a ballot. The bill's sponsors claimed the law was needed to protect election integrity, although they have been unable to produce any actual evidence of widespread fraud. Opponents suggested that the bill was an attempt to suppress poor, minority and elderly voters, who are least likely to have a driver's license and most likely to be intimidated by an election official.

With House Republicans' professed interest in standing up for the integrity of the ballot, we wonder why they continue to block a bill by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., that would require a paper audit trail in all federal elections so that we can be assured that our vote will be counted. H.R. 550 was originally introduced in 2003 and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, has been sitting on it ever since. (It's uncertain what effect Ney's pending departure from Congress as a result of his guilty plea on federal corruption might have.)

As our cover story notes, the 2000 election hinged on a Supreme Court decision, along party lines, that there is no right to have your vote counted. After the debacle in Florida over punch-card ballots, Congress in 2002 authorized $3.9 billion to upgrade the nation's election systems with electronic voting machines. But experts have demonstrated that hackers can easily rig the new voting technology to "fix" an election.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. noted in the Oct. 5 Rolling Stone magazine that across the country this year faulty equipment and lax security have repeatedly undermined primary elections. In Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Texas, electronic machines counted some ballots as many as six times, recording 100,000 more votes than were actually cast. In San Diego, poll workers took machines home for unsupervised "sleepovers" before the vote, leaving the equipment vulnerable to tampering. And in Ohio, where dirty tricks may have cost John Kerry the presidency in 2004, a government report uncovered large and unexplained discrepancies in vote totals recorded by machines in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland).

Kennedy noted that many electronic machines don't produce a paper record that can be recounted when equipment malfunctions -- "an omission that practically invites malicious tampering." An election supervisor in Leon County, Fla., told him every election office has staff members with the technological ability to "fix" an election. "Without paper records, it could happen under my nose and there is no way I'd ever find out about it," Ion Sancho told Kennedy.

Making things worse, Kennedy noted, the US is one of only a handful of major democracies that allow private, partisan companies to secretly count and tabulate votes using their own proprietary software. Today, 80% of all ballots in America are tallied by four companies -- Diebold, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Sequoia Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic. In 2004, 36 million votes were cast on their touch-screen systems, and millions more were recorded by optical-scan machines owned by the same companies that use electronic technology to tabulate paper ballots. "The simple fact is, these machines not only break down with regularity, they are easily compromised -- by people inside, and outside, the companies," Kennedy wrote. And three of the four companies have close ties to the Republican Party.

In October 2005, the Government Accountability Office issued a damning report on electronic voting machines. Another report released in June by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, echoed the GAO's findings and concluded that electronic voting machines "pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state and local elections." In a study released on Sept. 13, computer scientists at Princeton University created vote-stealing software that can be injected into a Diebold machine in as little as a minute, obscuring all evidence of its presence. They also created a virus that can "infect" other units in a voting system, committing "widespread fraud" from a single machine.

Some 27 states now require a paper trail, and others are considering similar requirements, but in Florida, the GOP legislature passed a new law that makes it illegal to count paper ballots by hand after they've been tallied by machine.

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., on Sept. 26 introduced emergency legislation to amend the Help America Vote Act to offer funding to states and counties that make contingency paper ballots available to voters as an option instead of electronic voting systems. Similar legislation is expected to be filed in the House, Bradblog.com reported, but no action is expected before Nov. 7.

Urge your Congress member and senators to support these bills but demand that your local election officials uphold the right for every voter's ballot to be verifiably counted.


Credit Overdue

Ann Richards was the most progressive Texas governor since World War II. Admittedly, she had a pretty low bar to clear for that distinction, but she opened the gates of the Governor's Mansion to the people, including blacks, Latinos and women, who were appointed to state boards and commissions in unprecedented numbers.

Former Texas Observer editor Lou Dubose noted at Salon.com that Richards worked to stop "redlining" that shut minorities out of the insurance market and she implemented health insurance reform. She created the state's first ethics commission. She merged the state's air and water regulation boards into a unified environmental agency, then appointed an African American who was not sanctioned by the business community to direct it. She traveled the state in a "Capitol for a Day" program with an entourage of agency heads and staffers from city to city to meet the constituents they served.

Her powers were limited by a populist state constitution that split executive power among some 20 statewide elected officials. But at least she believed that government could and should help people. "Richards' new Texas would broker a division of power among those bankers, bullies and bastards [who had run the 'Old Texas'] -- and the trial lawyers, environmentalists, consumer activists, feminists, and gay and lesbian political operatives who made Richards governor," Dubose wrote. "If Ann Richards failed to manage that delicate balance of power in the one term she served as governor of this state, she gets some credit for trying."

Not that the Observer [where TPP editor worked during her term] was inclined to give her much credit at the time. Instead, the longtime liberal voice for Texas was inclined to push her to do more. But Richards graciously appeared at the Observer's 50th-anniversary dinner in 2004. She responded to the enthusiastic applause at her introduction: "I wish the Observer had been that enthusiastic when I really was governor." She added, "I was just a fool -- I thought when I got elected ... that the really great thing about being governor was at least your friends would be there, standing behind you and supporting you. I think I asked them not to give me the Observer after about two months in office. And then somebody like Nate Blakeslee [an Observer editor who in 2000 exposed a corrupt drug sting in rural Tulia, Texas, that sent dozens of innocent blacks to prison] comes along and restores every feeling that you have about the Observer and what a remarkable, remarkable institution it is, and what a wonderful institution it's been for the state of Texas -- for the voiceless who desperately have needed a voice."

The feeling is mutual, Governor. R.I.P. -- JMC

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2006

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