17 October 2014

Oh, those glitches!

For some reason we tolerate them a lot more in an election - that is to say, in the mechanics of democracy, something we affect to believe in so fervently we're willing to go to war to make sure other countries have it - than we would in, let's say, our banking system.

Last week's primary election fiasco here in Chicago and Cook County - a fiasco of such ballot-eating magnitude that the city and county, which each had separate deals with Sequoia Voting Systems, are withholding more than $30 million remaining on their respective contracts with that company - should have generated howls of outrage. Instead, the tone of the local coverage of the chaotic transition from punch cards to optical-scan and touch-screen voting struck me more as tepid bemusement.

Most infuriating was the scattershot use of the trivializing, blame-avoidance word "glitch," which reduces disenfranchisement to oh well, gosh, just one of those things. The media can live with glitches. They still get their numbers to report. They still get "results," which, in our world of breathless headlines and two-second sound bites, are all that matter. Voting - democracy - is the booster engine that produces winners, then quietly disappears.

The operative assumption is that, despite the chaos, vulnerability to fraud and enormous cost, electronic voting is inevitable, "modern." And once you eliminate the human-error factor, it's, you know, infallible.

This, of course, is preposterous; every line of code in a voting program was written by a human. Our vote is hostage to a flawed, secret system of counting that almost no one understands.

This is what we never talk about. Media curiosity about the voting process stops the moment that ballots are fed into the computer. It's as though some natural process then takes over that, albeit incomprehensible to all but the tech-savvy, spits out a count there would be no more point in questioning than the word of God. This is called faith-based voting.

One person who insists we talk about this - about what happens to our ballots once they are surrendered to the proprietary software programs of the voting machine companies - is Paul Lehto, a lawyer from Snohomish County, Wash., which adopted Sequoia's voting system in 2002. Lehto is suing Snohomish County to invalidate its contract with Sequoia on the grounds that the company's ballot-counting software is not public knowledge.

Do you get this? Sequoia, like the other companies peddling electronic voting systems to local and state election officials, insists it has the right not to make its source codes, or any other information about its equipment, public. Nor, as Ion Sancho, election supervisor of Leon County, Fla., learned, do the companies even tolerate having their equipment tested. (Sancho demonstrated that you can modify an election without leaving evidence, which Lehto called "the nuclear bomb of election fraud.")

"In the suit, I'm saying if you hide the ball from the public, the contract is void," Lehto said. The suit is a direct challenge to a quiet outrage that we, or our elected representatives, seem to be too befuddled and enervated by to oppose: the loss of a public, open counting of our votes.

"Running a clean election is based on simplicity everyone can understand," Lehto maintains. "Vote in private; count in public."

Indeed, Lehto, a student of the democratic process, pushes the concept further: While no vote-count system is perfect, the natural check of competing interests is an indispensable component of fairness. You deal, I cut. Your guy and my guy are both standing there watching the tally. This goes a long way in reducing mistakes, not to mention outright cheating. Our elections are supposed to function on this principle at every level. When they don't, the results are suspect.

"The fact that nobody sees or can verify the scanner's count, together with the fact that the scanner's programming is trade secret software, creates secret vote counting," Lehto said. "Although recounts are in theory available in most states, the right to do this is severely restricted and it costs a lot of money, so as a practical matter very few races are recounted.

"With DREs (direct-recording electronic, or touch-screen, voting machines), the voter never sees the legal ballot in the first place, nor do even election officials. The magic numbers just pop out of the DRE."

Does this scare you as much as it does me? The obvious glitches are serious problems, but "fixing" them will merely mask the real problem, that the numbers the machines generate are unverifiable.

I fear the bulk of the media would settle for this: elections with smooth surfaces, producing results they can run with, whether or not they're accurate in a scientifically verifiable sense. All it takes is faith: faith in technology, though all evidence tells us that machines are not only fallible but stupid; and faith that despite the enormously high stakes in some elections, every insider with access to the equipment is clean.

"Without procedural integrity, you have nothing," Lehto said.

What's missing in faith-based democracy is a sense of reverence for the process.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com. © 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.