Friday, January 06, 2006

Hagel / World-Herald-owned Vote Technology Gets a Failing Grade

by Kyle Michaelis
I wrote a column several years ago about my suspicions of new voting technology, particularly for the disturbing connections to Republican politicians shared by what are probably the nation's two leading providers of such technology, Diebold and Omaha-based Election Systems & Software.

Then-current reports of vote count glitches along with the companies' near-total lack of oversight, accountability, or precautions should their machines fail made for a seemingly dangerous proposition when Diebold executives had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Bush's reelection campaign and its CEO had promised to help deliver the company's homestate of Ohio for the Republican Party (note: Ohio WAS the deciding state in 2004 - Bush won - and that state's GOP leaders have since become embroiled in scandals and corruption at every level of government).

ES&S, on the other hand, then only warranted mention because Sen. Chuck Hagel is the former President of the company (then going by a different name) and owned a sizable interest in it (by way of a holding company) along with Nebraska's "Republican-leaning" (to put it kindly) Omaha World-Herald, bar none the most powerful media source in the state. No real wrong-doing there, not at all, but the convergence of such mighty forces at the heart of democracy's most sacred institution, the ballot box, demands awareness and, yes, wariness on the part of citizens.

To be honest, where money, political power, and public influence meet, the insinuation of impropriety, if not outright corruption, is a pretty simple matter. That doesn't make it right...or fair...or honest. But, when insinuation is framed in terms of skepticism rather than as a means of accusation, it serves an undeniably important function in our society.

This technique should still be employed with care, of course avoiding defamation, but sometimes such an approach is the best (if not only) way to truly challenge people and open their minds to the harshest realities of American life and democracy to which so many turn a blind eye that the utopian fantasies feeding their unconcern might live.

There's an element of fear-mongering in that column I wrote, but a little fear of the powerful in a free society that wants to remain free may not be a bad idea...particularly when complacency and fears even more preposterous (can you say "War on Christmas"?) usually prove the alternative. Give me eternal vigilance over lynchings, witch hunts, and boogeymen any day of the week.

Besides, the powerful have the tools to fight back. The wealthy and successful should not invite scorn, but they can certainly handle an occasional self-righteous attempt at inspiring public suspicion.

And, damn it, it is curious that the World-Herald should not only have such close ties to a Senator it reports on daily (the same Senator it just named "Midlander of the Year" - and, I assure you, that's only the tip of the iceberg in the Hagel/World-Herald relationship) but also that it should own any stake at all in a business with the primary purpose of running elections.

I'll admit it; that such a powerful and partisan newspaper controls the flow of information, reports results, AND is involved in election tallying rubs me the wrong way. Even if only a shareholder in ES&S, investment buys influence and access. So much power becoming so concentrated is unsettling in the extreme. The possibilities for corruption and exercise of undue influence are endless. In my book, that's reason enough to be wary without any record of misdoing.

All this warrants attention now not because of any claims of corruption - just good, old-fashioned incompetence and defective goods. Seems California was not very happy with the performance of its ES&S-bought equipment during November's special elections.

The AP reports:
California election officials have told one of the country's largest manufacturers of voting machines to repair its software after problems with vote counts and verification surfaced during California's November special election.

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Assistant Secretary of State for Elections Bradley J. Clark threatened to start the process of decertifying Election Systems and Software machines for use in California if senior officials didn't address the concerns immediately.

"The California Secretary of State is deeply concerned about problems experienced by counties utilizing ES&S voting equipment and software," Clark wrote in a letter addressed to company president Aldo Tesi nine days after the Nov. 8 election.

Software problems included incorrect counting of turnout figures, a malfunction that prevented voters from verifying that their choices were registered accurately and one machine recording the wrong vote during a test, according to the letter.

Eleven California counties used the company's voting machines during the special election. Election Systems and Software equipment also is used in 45 other states.

The problems in California are similar to ones the company has experienced elsewhere. During a 2004 primary election in Hawaii, glitches with the company's optical scanners led to a miscount of about 6,000 votes....

According to the secretary of state's letter, other problems discovered in California Nov. 8 include:

- The company's software incorrectly counting the total turnout figures for counties that used multiple ballot cards: "This problem was a recurrence of a problem experienced by your customers in November 2004; you have had a year to correct this known problem, and have not done so," the letter stated....

- The touch-screen machine used in Merced County did not properly display the summary of votes, "making it impossible for voters to confirm their vote choices in those contests," the letter stated.

By no means evidence of the doomsday scenarios that abound, these sorts of problems are nevertheless important and demand public attention.

Alas, I've seen lots of silly innuendo around the Internet about Hagel's lopsided 2002 reelection victory being overwhelmingly counted by ES&S machines. Though troubling on its face, such scandal-hungy pseudo-journalism has largely been an embarrassment with no regard for the 2002 Nebraska political climate and the caliber of challenger that made just such a one-sided victory possible.

Still, the people have a right to know about potential conflicts of interest. When so much money is involved in politics, they NEED to know. And, yes, sometimes they also need to be reminded. That way, should the stench surrounding these stories actually take shape into something criminal it is that much more likely that someone will put together the pieces.

A glitch can be an innocent mistake, but it can just as easily be purposefully implanted in a program. Where one occurs another is possible, whether a mistake in design, a result of hacking, or even part of some nefarious corporate plan to swing an election.

We must be mindful. A little paranoia might even be in order. The survival of our democacy might even depend on it. True vigilance is a game of balancing extreme hypotheticals with reason and intellect. Forsake one side of the equation and all hope is lost.


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