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Barack Obama's presidency

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Monopoly Looms on Electronic Voting

By Lisa Pease
September 16, 2009

While we’ve been concentrating on the healthcare debate, the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, another story important to American democracy has gotten inadequate attention: a single company is poised to monopolize the counting of over 75 percent of the nation’s votes.

Earlier this month, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), which counted roughly 50 percent of the ballots in the last four major U.S. elections, purchased Diebold’s electronic voting unit, Premier Election Solutions, which controls roughly a third of the voting machine market.

The merger of these two companies has set off alarm bells, and not just in the voting activist community. 

Hart InterCivic, a competitor in the voting machine market, has filed a lawsuit seeking a federal court injunction to block the merger as an antitrust violation and a threat to “the integrity of the voting process in the United States.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, wrote Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Antitrust Division review the deal for possible violations. Schumer’s letter referenced a Congressional Research Service report from 2003 which indicated that having a diversity of systems and vendors might decrease the likelihood of widespread election fraud.

The cloistered nature of the electronic voting industry also is underscored by the fact that Diebold Election Systems was once run by Bob Urosevich, who in 1979 along with his brother Todd founded American Information Systems, which was later renamed ES&S.

Though Diebold took the brunt of the criticism for voting machine problems in recent years, other vendors also faced serious challenges, including ES&S. In 2007, Deborah Bowen, Secretary of State in California, sued ES&S for $15 million for selling uncertified voting machines to several California counties. (Bowen accepted a $3.25 million settlement from ES&S last January.)

Yet, because Diebold’s brand was so tarnished with revelations of serious bugs in its voting software, the company carved out its voting unit and renamed it in hopes of distancing the brand from the voting problems.

But Diebold continued to lose money and faced several lawsuits over voting matters. The sale transfers future liability to ES&S, a move that won praise on Wall Street. A Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst sent a letter to clients saying the sale was “long overdue” and a “huge relief.”

Still, the concentration of the industry -- represented by ES&S's purchase of Diebold's election unit -- raises other concerns for the American public, including an increased potential for nationwide voting manipulation.

Many people still have the impression that counting votes by computer makes it harder for people to commit voter fraud. That’s simply not true because the computer isn’t counting your votes; a programmer is. A computer can’t have a bias. But a programmer, being human, can, and does.

Traditional ballot box stuffing requires a number of people to produce election-altering results. But, theoretically at least, rigging a national election electronically would require only a few people if a single company controls nearly three-quarters of the counting. 

And no matter what you see on the voting screen when you tap on your favored candidate, the computer’s memory can be storing something completely different. Indeed, without a paper trail and effective auditing, you really have no way of knowing if your vote was recorded accurately.

For this reason, voting on “Direct Recording Electronic” (DRE) machines, usually presented with touchscreen ballots, is a dangerous idea. Other proposals for voting by phone or over the Internet would introduce even more unaccountability into the electoral process.

That’s why Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, has proposed legislation that would require not only paper ballots, marked and verified by the voter, but also a manual audit — a handcount of 100 percent of the paper ballots in some randomly chosen precincts — to verify that the machine count accurately reflects what was recorded by the voters on paper.

Without a paper record that is not only stored, but examined, there is no way to know if the votes have been counted as cast.

Election 2000 in Florida, where George W. Bush emerged as the declared winner despite a plurality of Floridians casting (or trying to cast) their ballots for Al Gore, pointed out the problems with using punch-cards for ballots. But the cure may have been worse than the disease.

At least with punch-cards, there was something to recount. With an electronic, i.e., digital, record, all you will find is what the programmer wanted you to find, be it accurate or inaccurate. And digital records can be altered after the fact, sometimes undetectably.

So American democracy appears to be facing a serious crisis, as a single company puts itself in position to count the majority of America’s votes while safeguards still don’t exist to protect against computer manipulation that could swing an election.

But wait. There’s more. It’s not just a monopoly. It’s a partisan monopoly.

In 2003, The Independent ran an article by Andrew Gumbel titled “All the President’s Men” which opened with this warning:

“A quiet revolution is taking place in US politics. By the time it's over, the integrity of elections will be in the unchallenged, unscrutinized control of a few large — and pro-Republican — corporations.”

The article outlined the problems with trusting elections to corporations, and ended with a quote from voting rights activist Roxanne Jekot:

“Corporate America is very close to running this country. The only thing that is stopping them from taking total control are the pesky voters. That's why there's such a drive to control the vote. What we're seeing is the corporatization of the last shred of democracy.”

Remember that Diebold’s former president Wally O’Dell became famous for a remark in which he pledged to do all he could to give Ohio to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Was Bush’s favorable showing there a coincidence? We were not given the opportunity to verify that result because the Republicans blocked recount demands.

Diminishing democracy – or even public faith in democracy – can have a ripple effect through all the other issues that confront the nation.

If we lose our vote, we can’t address healthcare in a way that meets the interests of most Americans. If we lose our vote, no one will care what we feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we lose our vote, there is also little hope that we will get it back because we lack a strong enough independent media to fight for democracy. 

That is why the clock is ticking for passing significant election reform legislation. The 2010 midterm elections are right around the corner.

Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.   

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