Daily Archives: December 9, 2006

Vote early and often!
Strictly for the information of the generality, and not in any spirit of self-adulation (you understand), Malcolm drew our attention to page 56 of this week’s Economist. He insisted we study it in full and in depth:

Another election mess in Florida

Big doubts about a narrow victory

SINCE it is a place where alligator wrestling is a recognised pastime and tourists wear hats with Mickey Mouse ears, you might think that Florida would be immune to embarrassment. But after its punch-card ballots threw the 2000 presidential election into chaos, the state made a decisive move. It outlawed punch-cards and spent millions of dollars on touchscreen voting machines instead.

“There’ll never be a hanging, dangling, or pregnant chad again,” vowed Katherine Harris who was Florida’s secretary of state at the time of the election. In 2002, Ms Harris was elected to the national House of Representatives.

But now voters are realising that a mangled paper record is better than none at all. “At least we had the ability to determine a voter’s intentions,” said Dan Smith of the University of Florida. This year’s election to Florida’s 13th congressional district provides a handy lesson in the pitfalls of electronic voting. Weeks after election day, it is still being contested. In an odd coincidence, it is the seat Ms Harris decided to vacate to pursue a disastrous Senate run.

Initial results showed a narrow lead for the Republican, Vern Buchanan. A recount gave him a 369-vote victory. Good enough to settle the matter in some circumstances, but not these. Sarasota County, one of four (plus a fragment of a fifth) that make up the district, had an abnormally high rate of “undervotes” in the race. More than 18,000 of its ballots recorded no vote for Mr Buchanan or the Democrat, Christine Jennings. That meant that 13% of Sarasota voters failed to choose a House candidate, compared with roughly 2% in neighbouring counties. Sarasotans cast more votes for the hospital board than they did for their representative in Washington.

Because the machines provide no paper record, no one can say for sure whether the missing votes, if counted more carefully, could have changed the outcome. But pre-election polls showed Ms Jennings in the lead. If the missing votes split at the same rate as the rest of the county, she would easily have won. Ms Jennings has filed a lawsuit asking for are-run.

Officials at first downplayed the story. “I’m not sure there’s even a problem,” said a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, theorising that voters sat out the race to protest against negative campaigning. But everyone in the district saw the same nasty ads and the pronounced undervote was limited to Sarasota County.

Working out what went wrong will be complicated. In court filings, Ms Jennings attributed the undervote to “pervasive malfunctioning of electronic voting machines”. The state made election workers re-cast thousand of ballots to test the machines. Discrepancies abounded, but this only proved that there were problems during the test. “Florida election officials”, sighed one local paper, “now have two mysteries to solve.” Many are blaming a poor ballot design in Sarasota that squeezed the House race onto the same screen as the governor’s race.

At least one question got a clear answer on election day. Voters were asked whether Sarasota County should provide paper ballots, to be counted by optical scanners, in future elections. Some 55% said yes, and no one is disputing that.

Malcolm, visibly chuffed, reminded us of his previous postings on the topic: “Ahead of the news again,” he said. When we pressed him, he suggested that the Economist was deficient in two respects:

  • The account minimised the malign influence of Katherine Harris, the onlie-true begetter of Florida’s electronic voting system.
  • The little piccy (as above) accompanying the piece, a disembodied hand at a voting screen, is captioned “The perils of technology”. Malcolm feels this is disingenuous, to say the least. Don’t blame the technology, but nail those who chose this inadequate system.

Let’s stick with this second point. Florida and Ohio are the two States where most problems with electronic voting have been encountered. In both cases the defects have favoured Republican candidates. In August 2003 Walden W. O’Dell, a major Republican fund-raiser, sent out a message to his fellow big-bucks contributors:

I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.

Nothing wrong with that, surely! Dedication to a cause (albeit one of which Malcolm disapproves).

Well, the aforesaid Mr O’Dell was Chief Executive of Diebold Inc, of Canton, Ohio. He resigned, in haste, in December 2005 over charges of insider trading. The company seems accident-prone: there was the small matter of $2.6M to California for dodgy election machines Another $125K went for threatening websites who had blown the whistle on defects in Diebold machinery (the dished dirt should be here: it amounts to how anyone with a laplop, a wireless link and a sussed password could manipulate elections). Diebold manufacture and support the voting machines used in Ohio and elsewhere. Allegations of complicity between Diebold and Ohio Republicans abound (try here). In any event, elections in Ohio emit an unpleasant odour: Malcolm repeats his recommendation of Robert F. Kennedy Jr‘s article in Rolling Stone, also available here. Another useful source on the perfidies of 2004 is makethemaccountable.

The Diebold election machine branch is based in McKinney, Texas, just north of Dallas: it’s not that Malcolm is being any more paranoid that usual, but he has to note that’s a quick bash up I35 and US75 from Crawford, Texas.

Students of the “Nothing works faster than Brand X” (Well, then, I’m better off using Nothing!) school of double talk will enjoy the innuendo of Diebold’s press release of 13th November, after the mid-terms:

On Election Day 2006, voters in many states across the nation used electronic voting technology from Diebold Election Systems to cast their votes and sign in at polling locations. Ballots cast across the states of Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Utah and elsewhere were counted accurately and securely by election officials using Diebold touch-screen and optical scan electronic voting machines.

While there were some minor problems – both human and technical – that are typical in every election, voters cast their ballots on Diebold electronic voting machines with confidence and ease.

And a footnote: “Katherine Harris crazy” is now defined in the Urban Dictionary.

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