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Cong. Wexler's New Book: Fire-breathing Liberal

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Congressman Wexler has a book being published by St. Martin's Press on Tuesday, June 24th. It is titled Fire-breathing Liberal and it details many of the fights he has taken on. There is an entire chapter on his fight for a paper trail called The Paper Chase: Making your vote count (it follows a chapter on Election 2000 recount).

Chapter 15

The Paper Chase: Making Your Vote Count

It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting.

- Tom Stoppard

Can one Congressman make a difference on a national issue? I'd assumed so, but now I intended to find out. The reality is that sometimes issues find legislators. This one had found me. Nothing is more fundamental to a functioning democracy than voting rights and the American system had broken down. Since my constituents had been the ones immediately affected I felt compelled to learn all that I could about voting machines, ballot design and the science and methodology of elections. This isn't part of the Congressional job description, but it had become clear to me that, despite the general perception, that job description includes many things nobody knows about. As a Member of Congress I had the bully pulpit -- access to publicity -- and both legal and legislative paths to follow.

Members of my staff and I began by meeting in my office with several experts regarding the new electronic ATM-style voting machines that were being developed. And every one of them, literally every one of them, told us that the new electronic voting machines are not secure. Even the most sophisticated voting machines had glaring shortcomings. I've yet to meet a computer expert who will attest that these machines can't be tampered with, manipulated or won't malfunction. Computers are fallible, they can be hacked, they break, they crash and design flaws happen. Knowing that, it is self-evident that American democracy cannot be solely dependent upon electronic machines to provide an accurate count of the vote. These electronic machines are incapable of conducting any type of meaningful recount. Imagine the world's most powerful democracy was just one computer glitch, one design flaw or one hack away from total electoral chaos. This was the nightmare scenario I envisioned that had to be prevented from happening. That's why I began a crusade for voter verified paper ballots in Florida and then throughout the nation. Ballots that can be recounted in close elections, ballots that can be audited, ballots that can be checked. This wasn't a partisan issue, it wasn't rocket science. Most voters, people from all political perspectives, understood that it was just common sense.

I was astonished to discover that many elected officials didn't see it the same way I did Some of even argued that electronic voting machines are infallible – the last time we heard that, of course, was when the Titanic set sail.

This isn't a new problem. Originally America voted by paper ballot. When there are two means of verifying a vote, a machine tabulation and supporting paper trail, there is a greater likelihood of an accurate vote tally. Also, the back-up system gives voters more confidence in the integrity of the system and that their votes will be counted accurately. Since we first began dropping a paper ballot into a box people have searched for a simple and secure technological way of making sure every vote is counted. More than a century ago, in 1892, when lever-operated voting machines began replacing paper ballots, people first began demanding a paper receipt. It was incredulous to me that more than 100 years later we were fighting the same battle.

If we'd had a voter verified paper trail to follow in 2000, the world would be a much different place. After the 2000 election Florida did recognize that changes had to be made and the state legislature passed the Election Reform Act, which prohibited the use of punch card machines – no more hanging chads. The 'intent of the voter' was replaced by 'a clear indication on the ballot' of the voter's choice. A year later Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which funded the purchase of electronic voting machines and instituted basic national voting procedures. As a result, a majority of Florida counties bought optical scan voting machines which do provide back-up voter verified paper ballots – but 15 other counties, including Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade decided on touch-screen machines, that do not provide a paper trail unless an expensive printer is attached. But no printers were certified for use in Florida by the state, which is why they never should have been allowed. In fact, the bi-partisan commission set up by the State recommended a uniform election system with all Florida counties using optical scan machines. But under pressure from Sandra Mortham, a former Republican Secretary of State and an ally of Governor Jeb Bush – who was paid $2 million by electronic voting machine companies to lobby on their behalf – the legislature allowed electronic voting machines to be used. In other words, nothing had changed. These fancy new machines did not produce a verifiable record of each person's vote. There was no way of verifying that the machine had correctly recorded each vote. And it completely eliminated the possibility of a recount

I wrote letters to Governor Bush and to Glenda Hood, Florida's new Secretary of State, complaining about the lack of a paper trail and asking them to purchase the printers. For some reason I have yet to understand these people did not want a verifiable voting system. Bush was the biggest impediment, and he fought me ferociously until the day he left office.

Theresa LePore insisted a paper trail was completely unnecessary, that the new technologies were easier to use, more reliable and more efficient. My personal opinion is that she just wanted to make sure she would never be involved in another recount – accuracy be damned. She also claimed to be concerned about protecting the voting rights of the disabled. The electronic machines have capabilities that allow people who had previous difficulty casting a secret ballot to vote independently. She also claimed there were extensive safeguards that guaranteed the accuracy of the electronic machines, including the fact that the computers were not connected in a network, meaning that to steal an election someone would have to change each individual machine. There certainly was some logic to that, but the simple solution of adding printers to create a paper trail would have eliminated all doubts. Think of it this way: If touch-screen machines had been used in the 2000 election there would have been absolutely no way of conducting a recount. Would anybody make a cash deposit at an ATM if there was no record whatsoever of their deposit?

In Congress, New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt felt just as strongly as I did about the need for a certifiable system and took the lead in filing federal legislation. I didn't know him well initially, but through this issue we developed a strong working relationship. When he originally filed his bill the Republicans held the majority, so there was little chance it would pass.

Meanwhile, in several different elections the new electronic machines proved to be as disaster. In a 2002 election for a seat on Boca Raton's City Council, former Mayor Emil Danciu was stunned when he finished third. His supporters claimed that when they touched his name on the screen, the machine tallied a vote for his opponent. It was later learned that after the election the cartridges from 15 voting machines in his home precinct had been taken home by a worker. When they were finally examined several of them proved to be blank. When the former Mayor, represented by his daughter, Charlotte, sued the manufacturer, he learned that under Florida law the codes were considered to be trade secrets and the state was not permitted access to them.

The election for Mayor of the small Florida town of Wellington was decided by only 4 votes – but 78 votes did not register on the machines at all. The election of a new Mayor was the only race on the ballot. Either one of two things happened in Wellington – either 78 citizens took the trouble to go to the polls for a local election and decided not to vote, or we had a big problem with the electronic voting machines.

In the Florida Democratic primary for Governor that year one precinct with more than 1000 registered voters reported no votes and many other votes were not counted because the machines were shut down improperly. But Theresa LePore continued to defend this system. She continued to adamantly oppose a paper trail.

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