23 November 2014

I'm continually amazed by the connections between seemingly unrelated threads in my life. I've already mentioned various times that I love to read audio books to replace the bad-news-all-the-time radio. Right now, I'm reading Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, the memoir of Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic. It's a lot of fun reading about someone whose life is so different from my own and about scads of meals that I couldn't or wouldn't ever eat. It's hard to think of a topic more removed from the state of our elections. And yet, both yesterday and today, her book touched on topics that seemed uncannily relevant.

For instance, Reichl shared her secret for perfect roast chicken. First, she stressed the key to good cooking: use quality ingredients. Many a recipe has achieved a depressing degree of mediocrity when the substitution of a few key ingredients would have made all the difference. There are several factors that lift a good cook to greatness, in my humble opinion. The most critical, but underrated, are pride and love. My daughter, Ariella, and my dear friend, Judy, are among the best cooks I know. They both expend a lot of time and energy on meal composition, making sure that various elements harmonize well and are artfully presented. Eating a meal that either of them prepares is truly a sensory experience. While I get many compliments on my own cooking from loyal family members, the difference is palpable. I've been doing it for so many years that the thrill is gone. I'm often in a big hurry with just too many other things to do, so I often find myself just going through the motions. Many a time, I have forgotten something in the oven or either skipped an important ingredient or a whole dish altogether because I got distracted. A special thanks is in order for whoever invented the timer. It has prevented many a kitchen catastrophe under this particular roof.

I'm sure you're wondering what the heck this has to do with the state of our elections. Well, there is a connection – quality and pride, or in this case, their polar opposite. In every report ever done on the electronic voting machine systems used across the country, the unifying theme is shoddy construction, sophomoric programming, and inadequate or non-existent security. Add to that the ITAs – the (not so) Independent Testing Authorities – that are actually paid by, and answerable only to, the vendors. There you have what I deem a recipe for disaster.

Let's check out the second part of Dan Rather's special report, "The trouble with touch screens," which aired last week. http://www.hd.net/drr227.html Rather looked into the actual paper ballots that were sent in 2000 to Palm Beach County, Florida. Virtually everyone recalls with a collective wince those ubiquitous photographs of election officials squinting and peering at hanging, pregnant, and otherwise problematic chads. People who had never heard of a chad beforehand have that image etched in their minds. I know I do. The investigation that Rather launched turned up some interesting information on how those troubled ballots ended up, coincidentally enough, in a county that determined the 2000 election. Lest you think that I'm exaggerating, please cast your mind back to that election, which was decided by a margin of 527 votes. Palm Beach County, somehow, had more than10,000 under votes – voters who ostensibly came to the polls and voted, but abstained from the contentious presidential race. Statewide, there were 50,000 over votes and at least 7,000 ballots that had three or more presidential candidates marked. Please note: not two candidates for the same race, but three or four. Is this claim even credible?

We now turn to Exeter, California, and the mill that turned out hundreds of millions of punch-card ballots over a period of 30 years for Sequoia Voting Systems. In an interview with seven former Sequoia employees, we find a possible answer for what suddenly turned the country away from punch-card voting towards computerized voting machines. The employees, many of whom had worked for Sequoia for 20 or even 30 years, all shared pride in the quality of their work. In fact, what they produced was referred to by Sequoia as a "no-defect product." The paper was high quality, as were the tools and inspection process.

In the months leading up to the 2000 election, however, this all began to change. Management suddenly stopped using James River and International Paper, despite the fact that these two suppliers had a superb track record that stretched back decades. Sequoia inexplicably switched to Boise Cascade – a company that lacked experience in the voting field – and the quality of the paper took a nosedive.

As one of the former employees put it, "The paper is a large factor in the quality of the ballot. It's the flour for the bread; I mean, you can't make good bread without good flour. If you don't have good paper, you won't make good ballots."

Quality control was relaxed, and management stopped listening to employees' comments and complaints. The drop in quality was quite noticeable and clearly rankled, and the workers' sense of pride was severely compromised. Said one, "Everybody's opinion was that this 2000 election was going to be our demise."

Let's go to the transcript of the Rather special.

Linda Evans [who did quality control for Sequoia for more than seven years] recalls the chad testing of ballots manufactured for the 2000 election.

Linda Evans: Chads were falling out. Chads were hanging up. We've got a machine that we call a gang punch, which in a sense punches out all the holes at the same time. You slide the card in there and you pull down the handle and it punches out all the holes. They weren't punching out. They were hanging up all over the place. They were aware of that. Oh, management was aware of it. We told 'em.

The behavior of the Sequoia management in the days leading up to the election was highly suspicious. When employees complained about the falling quality of their product, they were continually reassured, "It'll be okay." For those of us who have been following the computerized election machine debacle over the last few years, that sounds remarkably similar to the vendor mantra, "Trust us."

Walter Rantanen, "perhaps the country's leading forensic paper analyst," delivers nothing less than a bombshell on the program. His analysis showed that none of the card stock tested from Palm Beach County was actually produced by Boise Cascade, despite Sequoia's assurances, faux (Xeroxed) labels, and shipping invoices to the contrary. Boise Cascade confirmed Rantanen's claim when it examined a sample Florida 2000 ballot he sent them. So, where did the low-quality, chad-prone paper come from? A huge and highly relevant question. Further, the manner in which the ballots were produced was counter to traditional guidelines and standards. This practice threw the ballots out of alignment, and aggravated by the poor quality paper stock, could easily have led to the infamous hanging chads. This threw 2000 into question, launching HAVA and the next sordid chapter in our election history.

After the election, Brian Lehrman, the plant manager in Exeter, ordered the crew to "get rid of everything" that had anything to do with Florida because news teams wanted to tour the plant. The workers' fearful assessment was in fact correct – 2000 had spelled the end of punch-card voting. And after that election, Sequoia went from successful purveyor of a winning punch-card system to the far more lucrative sales of touch-screen voting machines, worth millions of dollars in Florida alone. The evidence brought forth in this special indicates that this company was poised to take advantage of a situation that they precipitated themselves.

As one of the Sequoia employees points out, if it's true that the company purposely subverted our elections, they should be made to pay. It's a serious charge that should be fully investigated. But, if the allegations are substantiated, how exactly would the guilty parties pay? Could a monetary fine of whatever magnitude make up for what's been done to our country, to our dead and wounded soldiers, to our devastated economy, badly tarnished national image, to our courts skewed irrevocably rightward, and to the broken and battered citizens of New Orleans? The list goes on and on. While we might all wish to press the rewind button and somehow go back prior to Election Night 2000, that simply is not an option. What can we do besides throw up our hands?

What is possible is to go forward into any proposed election reform with our eyes wide open. We should not accept what anyone says without proof – whether they are vendors, supposed experts, elections officials, or legislators in our nation's capital. Computer security analyst Bruce Schneier, in his August 15 newsletter, discusses the California "top-to-bottom" review of the voting systems. http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0708.html Unlike others who have rushed to praise SoS Bowen for the unprecedented analysis, Schneier assesses it differently. It's worth taking a close look at his perspective. He says,

The reviewers were given an unrealistic timetable and had trouble getting much documentation. The fact that major security vulnerabilities were found in all machines is a testament to how poorly they were designed, not to the thoroughness of the analysis.

He goes on to say,

While this is a good effort, it has security completely backward. It begins with a presumption of security: If there are no known vulnerabilities, the system must be secure. If there is a vulnerability, then once it's fixed, the system is again secure. How anyone comes to this presumption is a mystery to me. Is there any version of any operating system anywhere where the last security bug was found and fixed? Is there a major piece of software anywhere that has been, and continues to be, vulnerability free?

...It's all backward. Insecurity is the norm. If any system — whether a voting machine, operating system, database, badge-entry system, RFID passport system, etc. – is ever built completely vulnerability-free, it'll be the first time in the history of mankind. It's not a good bet…

Basically, [he continues] demonstrate that your system is secure, because I'm just not going to believe you otherwise…

Assurance [in security] is expensive, in terms of money and time for both the process and the documentation. But the NSA needs assurance for critical military systems; Boeing needs it for its avionics. And our government needs it more and more: for voting machines, for databases entrusted with our personal information, for electronic passports, for communication systems, for the computers and systems controlling our critical infrastructure. Assurance requirements should be common in IT [information technology] contracts, not rare. It's time we stopped thinking backward and pretending that computers are secure until proven otherwise.

As Bev Harris wrote in Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century,

This is not a computer-programming problem. It is a procedural matter, and part of the procedure must involve keeping human beings, as many as possible, in control of our own voting system. Any computerized voting system that requires us to trust a few computer scientists and some corporate executives constitutes flawed public policy. It doesn't matter whether they come up with perfect cryptographic techniques or invent smart cards so clever they can recognize us by sight. The real problem is that we've created a voting system controlled by someone else.

Add to that the vendors' perfectly lousy track record, unsavory business practices, hiring of felons, the billions of tax dollars at stake, and the revolving door between elected officials and vendor lobbyists and the entire system lacks credibility.

It is not sound business practice to reward the very companies that have continually fallen far short of professional standards, and have sprinkled their actions liberally with shoddy products and missed deadlines. Do they deserve lucrative contracts for new machines to replace the old, broken systems that they sold us before with such fulsome promises? The time-honored concept of accountability must be revived, not cavalierly disregarded. In this instance, it seems that crime does pay.

Present legislation for election reform is poised to leave the gate in September, after the summer recess. Be aware that, despite the hype, both HR 811 (Rep. Holt's bill) and S. 1487 (Sen. Feinstein's bill) have further entrenched the very same electronic voting machine vendors who have been trashed in every single independent report and review. Although these bills have some redeeming elements, do we seriously want to consider shoveling billions more of our hard-earned tax dollars to companies whose track record is so dismal? These bills offer the vendors a huge, undeserved dividend – select individuals will be allowed to examine the innards of their machines only after signing a non-disclosure agreement threatening stiff penalties if they reveal what they found.

This reminds me of the Chinese proverb, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Will we be active participants in pulling the wool over our own eyes? George Santayana might have been describing our present predicament when he said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We simply can't afford to repeat our past mistakes regarding our elections. We need to restore our feelings of pride about our country. This starts with full voter confidence in the fairness and accuracy of our elections, necessitating election reform that returns the voting process to the American voter. Turning this iceberg around is excruciatingly slow but it's the only hope we have to prevent what is surely yet another recipe for election disaster.

Let's end with an excerpt or two from the Rather special. These comments hit the nail on the head.

It all sounds familiar, too familiar. Taxpayers being asked to throw out millions of dollars worth of voting equipment, start over again, and pick up the tab. With no guarantee the new equipment will provide a solution to the problems. Technology can often offer a solution to a complicated process, in this case, accurately recording votes. But technology poorly conceived, designed, integrated and tested is a recipe for failure. In this instance, subsidizing the same outfits that couldn't get it right the first time, giving them more chances could lead to the further waste of millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars. And just as important, the further loss of confidence in our nation's ability to use technology to provide solutions for mission-critical applications, none more important to our nation than accurately recording each of our votes…

What's more important to you: knowing that your vote is recorded as you cast it? [O]r the profits of voting machine manufacturers? It's an obvious question, but when citizens try to get to the bottom of how these machines, bought with your taxpayer money, either work or don't work, manufacturers continually hide behind the wall of "trade secrets." Are these machines that determine who decides our laws, who runs our states, and who sits in the White House with the power to direct our armed forces, no different from say the formula for Coca Cola, or McDonald's special sauce? We don't think so, and that's why we tried to get answers tonight and raise questions about accountability.

But, unlike Congress or prosecutors, we aren't armed with subpoena power, we can't force companies to prove that they take concerns about their machines and their ballots seriously. Their message is "trust us," but the information we have been able to obtain suggests that trust has not been earned, and that voting machines warrant, at the very least, much closer scrutiny than they have received so far. Because, as we heard Florida's governor Crist ask, " what could be more important in democracy than making sure that the right to vote is one that we can have confidence in?"

I highly recommend that you watch this special and decide for yourself if handing over our elections to highly partisan, profit-driven corporations using proprietary software to secretly count our votes is what our Founding Fathers intended.

Let's go back to Ruth Reichl's recipe for success – use quality ingredients. In this case, that would be transparent, secure, and accurate voting complete with citizen involvement and citizen oversight. Just say "No!" to secret vote counting and the privatization of our most vital national resource – our democratic elections.

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Action you can take: To sign a petition demanding a full Congressional investigation, go to: http://voteraction.org/

Contact your Congressional rep http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ to reject further entrenchment of the vendors in HR 811 and S 1487 and to instead move back to more transparent, accurate, and secure elections complete with citizen oversight.

Although Black Box Voting is out of print, it is available for free downloading at the Black Box Voting website. http://www.blackboxvoting.org/ Consider reading it chapter by chapter. Download it and send it around. Or order it used from Amazon.

http://election-reform.org/dan_rather.html is an easier-to-read version of the transcript of the Rather special. According to Jerry Berkman, this includes material that was in the HDNet transcript but not on the video, including the statement quoted above.

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Joan Brunwasser of Citizens for Election Reform is a citizen activist working hard to restore and preserve free and fair elections. She started a lending library project to distribute the "Invisible Ballots" DVD in mid September 2005. In the following eighteen months, she loaned the DVD to almost 3,200 'borrowers' in 37 states, DC, Puerto Rico, Canada, Holland, England, Ireland and Japan. Since the DVD's release in spring 2004, there have been numerous studies and hacks, all of them critical of electronic voting. Her new focus is on raising public awareness about what's wrong with our elections and how to achieve a fair, secure and transparent election system. She welcomes your help in spreading the word. She has been the Voting Integrity Editor for Op Ed News since December 2005, where this was originally published.