25 November 2014

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with election integrity hero, Steve Heller. Our last interview was back in August, 2007.

You achieved notoriety a few years back. You stole the Diebold documents in January of 2004, the search warrant was served on your house in August of 2004, you were indicted on three felony charges in February of 2006, and you pled guilty to one felony count of unauthorized access to a computer in November of that same year. [For more background and details, all of the press and many of the blog posts on Steve Heller's case can be found here .] So what's happened since then?

Well, in terms of my case, what's happened is that when I pled guilty, I had to pay $10,000 in restitution to the law firm from which I stole the Diebold documents, and I was put on felony probation for three years. After one year, we petitioned the court for a reduction of my sentence from a felony to a misdemeanor. That petition was granted, and as of now, I remain on misdemeanor probation.

In terms of my activist life, that has continued in a much more involved way than before my criminal case. Being the "Diebold Whistle-blower" gave me a lot of "street cred," you might say, with the election integrity (EI) community, and so there were a lot of media appearances and public speaking engagements. I just went out there and did my best to spread the word about the fact that our elections are unverifiable and totally without security, and what we must do to reverse this problem.

Financially, it's been difficult. The legal bills were huge, and while my legal defense fund helped a lot, we took a big hit financially. And my crime made it impossible for me to continue making the very good living I was making as a legal word processor; no one will ever hire me for that work again. But I'm in school full time retraining for a new career and hopefully in the near future I'll be able to make a good living again. But at this point, with so many Americans in serious financial straits, my wife and I consider ourselves very lucky. We've got our house, food on the table, and we are able to cover our bills. So believe me, we're not complaining.

As for my personal life, nothing has changed, thank goodness. My wife Michele and I have come through my legal problems with our marriage stronger than ever. I did something that brought a lot of trouble to our doorstep, but Michele stood by me like a rock; she knows that I did what I had to do. I owe her so much.

How is your life different now?

Before my crime, I was only an armchair EI activist. I had read Bev Harris' book, Black Box Voting, and I followed the EI news very closely. I'd brood about our elections and how shoddy, unreliable, and unverifiable they were (and still are). I strongly believed (and still believe) that Bush was not elected but was selected by a right-wing cadre of Supreme Court judges who invented law out of whole cloth in order to appoint their preferred candidate. I'd fulminate about how "We, the People" should have risen up and refused to accept having our president selected for us against the wishes of a majority of voters in Florida and all across the nation. I worried almost constantly about our democratic republic and the continuation of our liberties. But I'm embarrassed to say that until January of 2004, I didn't actually *do* much of anything about it.

But stealing and exposing those documents was doing something about it, and that's an understatement. I was plunged into the midst of a very hot fight, and suddenly I became one of the front line soldiers in the on-going struggle to restore accuracy and integrity to our elections. And I'm proud to still be directly involved in that fight.

And to me, being part of the battle for election integrity is a perfect example of "fighting the good fight." Clean elections are one of the "goodest" of the good fights. And I would now like to apologize to my deceased mother, who was an English teacher, for using the word "goodest." Sorry, Mom.

What are you doing, these days?

I'm very proud to be working with Velvet Revolution (VR), which is an organization co-founded by Brett Kimberlin and Brad Friedman, publisher of The BRAD BLOG. My job with VR is to assist Brett and Brad as a blogger and researcher for any and all EI issues. One of VR's offshoot websites is the Election Protection Strike Force, and I blog a fair amount on there. I also work with Emily Levy, another member of VR, on any number of EI projects that come up. At present, I'm assisting Emily in VR's call for an investigation of some strange discrepancies in California's 2008 election regarding Prop 8, the amendment to restrict marriage rights.

What's your main goal as an EI activist?

In the broadest sense, it's to make our elections accurate, reliable, verifiable, and secure. But the devil is in the details, as they say. There's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to get to that goal, and in this interview I won't get into the nitty-gritty details. But if we could accomplish the following things, we'd be taking a giant step forward:

1. A voter-marked paper ballot for every vote in every election, no exceptions;

2. The paper ballots counted in a public, transparent, and verifiable manner at the local precinct level with citizen observation allowed by law;

3. Precinct results posted publicly before those results are forwarded to any other location(s);

4. Strict and clearly defined chain-of-custody procedures for all ballots and election equipment before, during, and after every election;

5. And finally, we need to actually enforce the laws! All too often election officials, candidates, and political parties fail to comply with various election laws that are on the books, and nothing happens. There's no accountability. This must stop. There must be real accountability and serious consequences for anyone who fails to abide by election laws.

When you looked ahead, is this what you imagined yourself doing?

Oh, hell no. I certainly never expected to be a middle-aged, unemployed, felonious political activist! But while my life has definitely taken some pretty wild turns -- and whose hasn't? -- I'm very happy with where I'm at and proud of what I did.

Was the price you paid worth it?

Yes. It was pretty scary for a while, and the financial fears were intense. We came very close to losing our house. But we managed to muddle through, and while we have no savings and we're still struggling financially, my wife and I are doing fine, we're hanging in there, and we have every reason to believe that things will get better for us. We're really exceptionally lucky in many ways.

But mostly, it was worth it because it gave me an opportunity to serve and protect my country as a citizen activist, a chance to defend my democratic republic. I was able to expose just a few of the crimes Diebold was perpetrating against our nation's elections. Doing that was well worth the price my wife and I had to pay for what I did.

Would you do it again?

You bet, in a heartbeat. I never would have forgiven myself if I, who up until that point had never really done anything for my nation other than pay my taxes and be a decent citizen, had turned away from the opportunity to expose serious crimes being committed against our elections and thus against our entire republic. Yes, I'd do it again without a second thought.

But let me make this clear: I did commit a serious crime. I stole and exposed attorney-client privileged documents, and that is a very serious violation of the law. Even corrupt, criminal corporations like Diebold deserve under the law to have all communications with their attorneys and their attorney's work product kept secret, and I broke that law. So I don't make light of the serious nature of my crime.

But what is illegal is not always wrong.

I pled guilty to my crime, and I accept responsibility for what I did. I have been and am still being punished for it. But I believe that in this single, isolated, discreet instance, what I did was illegal, but not wrong. I sleep well at night.

Any words of advice to activists trying to break through the wall of the new administration?

I think there will be a lower wall, now. The Bush (mis)administration was one of the most secretive in history, and their contempt for Congress and for the rights and liberties of the American people was horrific. I don't think it will be like that with President Obama. But of course getting the ear of those in power is always difficult, and the best advice I can give is to be persistent, and to organize with like-minded individuals. Either join an existing group or organization that's fighting for the cause or causes that are dear to your heart, or start your own group. The internet and social networking sites make organizing easier than ever. Turn off the TV, get up from the couch, and get out there, get active.

I'm haunted by something I recently read in the New York Times: that 45 states have a budget deficit. How the heck are we going to get anyone to throw out their old electronic voting systems if they have no money?

The fact is that switching to a paper ballot system would actually be a significant savings over the current cost of maintaining those horrible, inaccurate, unverifiable, and easily hacked electronic voting machines. Dumping those damn machines and the maintenance contracts/costs that accompany them would actually save money for the states. Paper ballot systems are much less expensive, they work better, and maintenance costs are very, very low.

Along those same lines, I'd urge the states to seriously consider suing the various voting machine companies for fraud. These companies made guarantees in writing about the accuracy, reliability, and security of their voting machines and ballot counting devices, and most of these guarantees have been proven false. I'm not a lawyer, but I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that many states would have a very strong civil case against these companies, and suing to recoup all or part of their costs for the fraudulent and shoddy equipment would be another way for a state to legitimately boost revenue.

Well, Steve, you've been very candid about your anything-but-dull life since 2004. You stood up for American voters in a gutsy move that cost you, big time. Thank you. And, good luck to you!

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which exists for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. We aim to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Electronic (computerized) voting systems are simply antithetical to democratic principles.