Digging for E-Voting Skulduggery
June 24, 2004
The woman who launched the controversy over electronic voting machines has formed a nonprofit consumer group that plans to investigate election officials who may have conflicts of interest with voting companies.
Washington-based publicist Bev Harris recently formed Black Box Voting in an attempt to improve the integrity of the election process and represent the interests of voters. Harris brought attention to the perils of e-voting last year when she discovered the source code for a voting system made by Diebold Election Systems on the Internet. The code, computer scientists determined, contained serious security flaws.
As a result, voting activists in California, Maryland and other states have been calling on election officials to replace e-voting systems or make them more secure. But some officials have resisted that call and vehemently defended the voting companies and their machines, raising suspicions that they may have ties to the voting companies.
In California, for example, Riverside County registrar of voters Mischelle Townsend is being investigated by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission for accepting plane fare to Florida from Sequoia Voting Systems to help film an infomercial in support of e-voting sponsored by Sequoia. Townsend, an unwavering supporter of the Sequoia machines used in her county, announced plans this week to retire to spend more time with her family. Former California Secretary of State Bill Jones became a paid consultant for Sequoia after pushing through a $200 million state bond measure to help counties purchase new e-voting machines. Support for the measure was financed by Sequoia and another voting firm.
To kick off her new organization's activities, Harris and the associate director of the group will launch a 90-day road trip to examine conflict-of-interest issues in several states. Harris and Andy Stephenson, a former candidate for secretary of state in Washington who now devotes his attention to researching and educating the public about election procedures, plan to examine officials in Georgia, Florida, Texas and other states where they've received tips that something might be amiss. They're focusing on local election officials who made the decisions to purchase the machines.
"The story about the voting machines that we uncovered was very interesting, but we felt it was really important to study the causal factors of how these things got pushed down everyone's throat," Harris said.
They are aiming at officials who have expressed a strong aversion to conducting audits of voting systems or who have refused to entertain the idea that e-voting systems could be flawed.
"The typical politician's response (when the security of the machines comes up) is: Let's set up a task force to study it," Harris said. "When you have someone who is not at all interested in studying it or getting information, you want to find out what mechanism motivated him to take such a strong position."
The road trip will end in mid-August, but the group will publish information as they uncover it, working with newspapers and other media outlets. After the road trip, the group will be investigating election auditing procedures in counties as well as other election processes to help educate the public and improve the integrity of elections.
Harris said there is an obvious need for a consumer organization to protect elections and the interests of voters since, in some counties, nearly every part of the election process is now in the hands of private companies. Diebold Election Systems, for example, through its acquisition of another company last year, now controls voter registration, voter outreach and poll worker training in some counties, in addition to the actual casting and counting of votes.
Voting firms are chasing contracts worth billions of dollars in federal funds allocated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to help states upgrade voting systems and election procedures.
"When you take hunks of the whole system and you start privatizing it, it makes sense to have a consumer organization that's completely independent," Harris said.
Black Box Voting gets its funds from individuals, though Harris wouldn't say how much money the group has gathered. She said she wants to avoid letting voting companies and election officials know the extent of her group's resources.