Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Omaha World-Herald Should Divest from Vote Counting Company

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week, the Omaha World-Herald published what read like a post-election press release for Election Systems & Software on the general success of its vote counting software and hardware across the country. Amidst the love-fest, it also shared some important details about ES&S and its corporate relationship with the World-Herald:
"It's been, all things considered, a smooth day," said Jill Friedman-Wilson, a spokeswoman for Omaha-based Election Systems & Software.

"When you look at the scale and the scope of this election, what you're seeing are problems you would expect," she said....

ES&S, in which the Omaha World-Herald Co. owns a minority interest, is the country's biggest supplier of election hardware and software.

On Tuesday, nearly 67 million people were expected to vote using ES&S equipment. The company's machinery counts well over half the votes in a national election through 1,800 voting jurisdictions in 43 states....

Some voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas complained that touchscreens showed a vote for Republican candidates when they wanted to vote Democratic. Election officials said that wasn't the case, and ES&S' Friedman-Wilson said touchscreen machines were designed to highlight candidate selections so a voter could change them if an error were made.

Meanwhile, this weekend, the World-Herald suggested that slow election night returns in Omaha/Douglas County resulted because the county "printed its own ballots instead of purchasing them from Election Systems & Software." Synergy, baby!

It seems fair to say that the above article, for whatever reason, underplays some of the substantial voting irregularities that were reported both pre- and post-election day on ES&S vote counting machines. Election count watchdog Brad Friedman has made note of several published reports of serious failures of ES&S machines that have been routinely dismissed by the company and largely neglected by the press (1, 2, 3, 4).

Most notorious, however, is the on-going recount and legal battle in Florida's 13th Congressional District (1, 2), where an inexplicably high number of unrecorded votes in a Democratic-leaning county (18,000 "undervotes") are still being investigated as the current count shows a slim lead for the Republican candidate of less than 400 votes. There, the ES&S vote machines have been "immediately sequestered and preserved" by the courts for further examination.

Now, across the Internet and amongst many liberal activists, there has long been a building sense of fear and distrust about the expansion of new vote counting technologies and the threats they pose to the integrity of our democracy - be they from hacking, software glitches, or even conspiratorial possibilities of outright vote manipulation.

It is generally outside the purview of this site to discuss these threats in any substantial way (three years ago, I wrote on the subject in a Daily Nebraskan column with little success). The time has come for someone to say, though, that the Omaha World-Herald has no place maintaining its investments in Election Systems & Software. Continuing their corporate relationship does great disservice not only to both companies but also to our democratic institutions.

I don't mean to assert any wrong-doing by either company, but a newspaper having a financial stake in so political and such highly controversial an on-going national debate undermines the World-Herald's credibility and feeds into a perception that democracy itself is being vertically integrated to the benefit of corporations and at the expense of the American people.

In Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald already plays an unparalleled role in shaping public perceptions and the political climate. As a decision-maker, the newspaper's influence can easily be over-stated, but the simple fact remains that it is the most powerful voice in the Nebraska media and one of the most powerful forces in Nebraska politics.

Because of a lack of established alternatives, it can be said in many quarters of this state that if something isn't reported in the World-Herald it may as well not even have happened because it is the primary source of news for so many, with no other entity having anything close to its reach across the state.

That is a lot of power. That is a lot of responsibility - a responsibility the World-Herald does not live up to by maintaining part ownership in ES&S.

The line must be drawn somewhere. By what and how it reports, the World-Herald exercises enormous influence, guiding debates within the community. From the World-Herald's editorial page, that influence is even further magnified, felt beyond public opinion but also - come election time - at the ballot box and throughout local and state government. After an election, the World-Herald has a similar hand in shaping reaction to the very outcome they helped create - whether successful in its goals or not.

There is nothing truly out of the ordinary there. The only thing really objectionable is just the lack of alternative media and alternative voices to offer some balance, but the World-Herald can't be blamed for it's dominance or its singular place in Nebraska's underdeveloped media market and political machinery.

What the World-Herald can be blamed for, however, is blurring an essential, protective line between reporting the news and making the news - not to mention, shaping the elections and literally deciding their outome. No suggestion of impropriety or corruption is necessary to say that it does not serve the public good for a newspaper that already plays so great a part in Nebraska politics to step beyond reporting on elections to play a role - any role at all - in actually counting the ballots by which they are decided.

Vital safeguards to our democracy are diminished, imperiled, and perhaps even erased outright by this convergence of two streams of information control that should never have been allowed to merge as one.

When so much political reporting is focused around elections, there is a serious conflict of interest on the part of the World-Herald that cannot be corrected by simple acknowledgment of its ties to ES&S. Reliant on government contracts and subject to state and federal legislation, ES&S radically undermines the World-Herald's credibilitity as an independent press.

Furthermore, having often chosen favorites of the candidates and issues that appear on ballots, the World-Herald's ownership of ES&S undermines the latter's essential role as an independent arbiter of elections. With all of the trust that is placed in these machines and the companies that design them - the fate and, in some ways, the survival of the world's oldest and greatest democracy - it should not surprise that the potential dangers inherent to this situation are recognized, taken very seriously,and not to be dismissed lightly.

In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that such threat must be eliminated. As a matter of both corporate and civic responsibility, the Omaha World-Herald should divest completely of any holdings in ES&S. It takes no grand conspiracy theory to compel such action but merely some measure of respect for the principles such industries demand and for which these companies supposedly stand.

Both the Omaha World-Herald and Election Systems & Software have responsibilities to the public that cannot be made congruous or over-lapped - responsibilities neither fulfill so long as their corporate ties remain.

7 Comments:

Anonymous nepolwatcher said...

Kyle - once again kudos to you for tackling another important issue. It's worth noting that another "minority" partner in the OWH's election machines venture is none other than Senator Chuck Hagel. For years Hagel has purposefully mis-reported his stake in ES&S in what can only be described as an effort to confuse the public. If the OWH has a conflict of interest in owning the voting machines that count the votes in elections tehy cover, what does it say when Hagel owns the voting machines that count the ballots he's ON?
The OWH and Hagel should divest. But in NE, as they say, all politics is local. ES&S Head Mike McCarthy is VERY close friends with both Hagel and OWH publisher John Gottschalk. the realtionship doesn't pass the smell test - its a cabal. Bev Harris of Black Box Voting exposed Hagel years ago, and he's so impervious to accountability that he's done nothing to seperate himself grom ES&S and his pal the publisher hasn't allowed a single news report to examine Hagel's financial and political stake in that company. It's unseemly.

11/16/2006  
Anonymous TedK said...

Kyle,
4:06am! Get some sleep!

11/16/2006  
Blogger Don Kuhns said...

Well worth the presumed loss of sleep, Kyle. I wish our Omaha "alternative" weekly paper was printing stuff like this, instead of copying the World Herald's GO section almost word for word.

11/16/2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great work, Kyle.
Thanks.

11/16/2006  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Watcher-

I wrote about the Hagel/ES&S connection in the Daily Nebraskan column I linked to in the above article. Sadly, Bev Harris and her followers have really made asses of themselves with outrageous (and ignorant) claims that Hagel stole his 1996 and 2002 elections. They've really marginalized themselves and hurt their cause with their penchant for conspiracy theories unsupported by fact. They would have done well to recognize years ago that just because something smells fishy doesn't make it a fish.


Ted-

You told me you wanted some new content....I couldn't disappoint you even if it meant running on fumes today. The worst thing is that I always have so many articles on the back-burner and only get around to writing about half of them. There's just not enough hours in the day.


Don-

The need for a real alternative voice has been a terrible detriment to this state. I do what I can....but, let's face it, the audience for a blog all about Nebraska politics is pretty slim. One has to wonder whether the work put into this site is worth it. I just hope it makes some difference and maybe even inspires others to follow suit.


Anonymous-

You are very welcome. Just trying to put some ideas out there, no matter how ridiculous it is for a lowly blogger to dictate corporate policy to Nebraska's mini-media conglomerate, while lecturing them on responsible journalism.

11/16/2006  
Anonymous nepolwatcher said...

Kyle - I agee that Bev Harris is on the lunatic fringe on this issue but the HBO documentary she is in airing this month - "Hacking Democracy" shows some startling facts about voting machines and how they can be manipulated.

I dont beleive Hagel stole the 96 election or did anything to influence the 2002 election. But the fact he owns the voting machines should be enough to scare us all - that its not considered a conflict of interest. And his relationship with the World Herald is disturbing at best. Sure it may not be a fish, but it doesn't have to be a fish to be fish-y. Mike McCarthy, John Gottschalk and Chuck Hagel - fancy themseves as power brokers - one controls the media, one controls the voting machines and the other benefits from both.

11/16/2006  
Blogger Sean Weide said...

The "alternative" weekly in Omaha is holding the World-Herald accountable, too.

Its "Media Notes" column has raised questions about the issue before and most recently revealed that the newspaper chose not to publish anything about ES&S ballot problems in other states:
www.thereadersmedianotes.blogspot.com

11/17/2006  

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