The Toledo Blade reports that Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is moving ahead with a plan to put computerized voting machines in all 88 Ohio counties by 2004.  County election officials, we are told, will able to choose a ballot vendor from a list of pre-selected private corporations that program electronic voting machines. The state will write all the purchase contracts and pay for the machines.  

This project is billed as vast improvement over current non-standardized voting systems. Officials also claim it is designed to protect Ohio from the ballot mess in Florida that threw the 2000 presidential election into the hands of the Supreme Court.  

However, it's worth asking whether or not the vote recording and counting process, so crucial to fair elections, should be placed in the hands of private contractors who are not accountable to citizens?  "You'd think in an open democracy," writes attorney Thom Hartmann in a recent article on, "that the government - answerable to all its citizens rather than a handful of corporate officers and stockholders - would program, repair, and control the voting machines."  

Hartmann suggests that the recent trend in privatized vote counting has further muddied, rather than cleaned up, elections. He notes several recent political races where long-shot candidates upset opponents who looked to be winners based on results of formerly reliable exit polls. "Perhaps it's just a coincidence," he writes, "that the sudden rise of inaccurate exit polls happened around the same time corporate-programmed, computer-controlled, modem-capable voting machines began recording and tabulating ballots."  

According to the Blade, Blackwell's plan will establish "an authorized vendor list for deployment of new voting equipment [and] will require vendors to include, as part of their bid proposal, fund allocation that includes voter education, election official education and training, and poll worker training."  

But who exactly are these vendors? What are their political attachments? Will state and county officials be able inspect the software running their voting machines?  Will there also be a paper trail of each vote that can be audited if there is evidence of fraud? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are either unclear, or in many cases rather troubling.  

Bev Harris, author of the book Black Box Voting: Ballot-tampering in the 21st Century, reports that one of the country's leading manufacturers of computerized "touch screen" voting machines is Election Systems and Software (ES&S). The company was financed by the Ahmanson family (right-wing, radical political activists) and included Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as one of its owners. Harris reports on her Web site that "ES&S was the ONLY company whose machines counted Hagel's votes when he ran for election in 1996 and 2002."   

In the 1996 race, Hagel scored what the Washington Post called a "major Republican upset." As Hartmann reports, "Hagel won virtually every demographic group, including many largely Black communities that had never before voted Republican." He was the first Republican in 24 years, in fact, to win a Senate seat in Nebraska.  Wasn't it Stalin who suggested that counting the votes was the only thing that mattered in the election process?

When Harris first reported the Hagel connection to ES&S, the company's attorneys sent her a letter demanding that she make a retraction or remove the article. Instead, she posted the attorney's letter on her site. A few months later, The Hill, a Washington-based paper that covers Congress, ran a story confirming Harris' report.

ES&S isn't the only vendor that appears to have a great deal of contempt for honest reporting and open, democratic elections. Harris also indicates that the voting systems of other leading vendors have serious flaws, yet these systems are being installed in several states. For example, Harris writes, "Recently, technicians and programmers for Diebold Election Systems, the company that supplied every single voting machine for the surprising 2002 results in the state of Georgia, the company that is preparing to convert the state of Maryland to its no-paper-trail computerized voting, admitted to a file-sharing system that amounts to a colossal security flaw." 

  This is not to suggest that technology itself is the problem. Ohio, like many other state's could use more advanced, accessible voting systems. But when those systems are operated by private corporations and powered by closed, proprietary software code, the voting process ceases to be an open, democratic affair. It's likely that Ohio's vendor list will include ES&S and Diebold, or other similar companies favored by Blackwell and his staff.  Centralizing the bid process may also prevent county election officials from developing strong relationships with vendors, which are helpful when training and support issues arise.  But perhaps the greatest dilemma is the lack of publicly accessible paper records that privately managed voting typically entails. With no paper trail to follow, how will voters know that their votes have been properly recorded and counted?

  Toledo Blade article: Bev Harris' Web site: Thom Hartmann's article: