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The Dan Rather Voting Machine Special, A Recipe for Election Disaster, and Serious Food for Thought

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I’m continually amazed by the connections between seemingly unrelated threads in my life. I’ve already mentioned various times that I love to read audio books to replace the bad-news-all-the-time radio. Right now, I’m reading Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, the memoir of Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic. It’s a lot of fun reading about someone whose life is so different from my own and about scads of meals that I couldn’t or wouldn’t ever eat. It’s hard to think of a topic more removed from the state of our elections. And yet, both yesterday and today, her book touched on topics that seemed uncannily relevant.

For instance, Reichl shared her secret for perfect roast chicken. First, she stressed the key to good cooking: use quality ingredients. Many a recipe has achieved a depressing degree of mediocrity when the substitution of a few key ingredients would have made all the difference. There are several factors that lift a good cook to greatness, in my humble opinion. The most critical, but underrated, are pride and love. My daughter, Ariella, and my dear friend, Judy, are among the best cooks I know. They both expend a lot of time and energy on meal composition, making sure that various elements harmonize well and are artfully presented. Eating a meal that either of them prepares is truly a sensory experience. While I get many compliments on my own cooking from loyal family members, the difference is palpable. I’ve been doing it for so many years that the thrill is gone. I’m often in a big hurry with just too many other things to do, so I often find myself just going through the motions. Many a time, I have forgotten something in the oven or either skipped an important ingredient or a whole dish altogether because I got distracted. A special thanks is in order for whoever invented the timer. It has prevented many a kitchen catastrophe under this particular roof.

I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with the state of our elections. Well, there is a connection – quality and pride, or in this case, their polar opposite. In every report ever done on the electronic voting machine systems used across the country, the unifying theme is shoddy construction, sophomoric programming, and inadequate or non-existent security. Add to that the ITAs – the (not so) Independent Testing Authorities – that are actually paid by, and answerable only to, the vendors. There you have what I deem a recipe for disaster.

Let’s check out the second part of Dan Rather’s special report, “The trouble with touch screens,” which aired last week. http://www.hd.net/drr227.html Rather looked into the actual paper ballots that were sent in 2000 to Palm Beach County, Florida. Virtually everyone recalls with a collective wince those ubiquitous photographs of election officials squinting and peering at hanging, pregnant, and otherwise problematic chads. People who had never heard of a chad beforehand have that image etched in their minds. I know I do. The investigation that Rather launched turned up some interesting information on how those troubled ballots ended up, coincidentally enough, in a county that determined the 2000 election. Lest you think that I’m exaggerating, please cast your mind back to that election, which was decided by a margin of 527 votes. Palm Beach County, somehow, had more than10,000 under votes – voters who ostensibly came to the polls and voted, but abstained from the contentious presidential race. Statewide, there were 50,000 over votes and at least 7,000 ballots that had three or more presidential candidates marked. Please note: not two candidates for the same race, but three or four. Is this claim even credible?

We now turn to Exeter, California, and the mill that turned out hundreds of millions of punch-card ballots over a period of 30 years for Sequoia Voting Systems. In an interview with seven former Sequoia employees, we find a possible answer for what suddenly turned the country away from punch-card voting towards computerized voting machines. The employees, many of whom had worked for Sequoia for 20 or even 30 years, all shared pride in the quality of their work. In fact, what they produced was referred to by Sequoia as a “no-defect product.” The paper was high quality, as were the tools and inspection process.

In the months leading up to the 2000 election, however, this all began to change. Management suddenly stopped using James River and International Paper, despite the fact that these two suppliers had a superb track record that stretched back decades. Sequoia inexplicably switched to Boise Cascade – a company that lacked experience in the voting field – and the quality of the paper took a nosedive.

As one of the former employees put it, “The paper is a large factor in the quality of the ballot. It’s the flour for the bread; I mean, you can’t make good bread without good flour. If you don’t have good paper, you won’t make good ballots.”

Quality control was relaxed, and management stopped listening to employees’ comments and complaints. The drop in quality was quite noticeable and clearly rankled, and the workers’ sense of pride was severely compromised. Said one, “Everybody’s opinion was that this 2000 election was going to be our demise.”

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Let’s go to the transcript of the Rather special.

Linda Evans [who did quality control for Sequoia for more than seven years] recalls the chad testing of ballots manufactured for the 2000 election.

Linda Evans: Chads were falling out. Chads were hanging up. We've got a machine that we call a gang punch, which in a sense punches out all the holes at the same time. You slide the card in there and you pull down the handle and it punches out all the holes. They weren't punching out. They were hanging up all over the place. They were aware of that. Oh, management was aware of it. We told 'em.

The behavior of the Sequoia management in the days leading up to the election was highly suspicious. When employees complained about the falling quality of their product, they were continually reassured, “It’ll be okay.” For those of us who have been following the computerized election machine debacle over the last few years, that sounds remarkably similar to the vendor mantra, “Trust us.”

Walter Rantanen, “perhaps the country’s leading forensic paper analyst,” delivers nothing less than a bombshell on the program. His analysis showed that none of the card stock tested from Palm Beach County was actually produced by Boise Cascade, despite Sequoia’s assurances, faux (Xeroxed) labels, and shipping invoices to the contrary. Boise Cascade confirmed Rantanen’s claim when it examined a sample Florida 2000 ballot he sent them. So, where did the low-quality, chad-prone paper come from? A huge and highly relevant question. Further, the manner in which the ballots were produced was counter to traditional guidelines and standards. This practice threw the ballots out of alignment, and aggravated by the poor quality paper stock, could easily have led to the infamous hanging chads. This threw 2000 into question, launching HAVA and the next sordid chapter in our election history.

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After the election, Brian Lehrman, the plant manager in Exeter, ordered the crew to “get rid of everything” that had anything to do with Florida because news teams wanted to tour the plant. The workers’ fearful assessment was in fact correct – 2000 had spelled the end of punch-card voting. And after that election, Sequoia went from successful purveyor of a winning punch-card system to the far more lucrative sales of touch-screen voting machines, worth millions of dollars in Florida alone. The evidence brought forth in this special indicates that this company was poised to take advantage of a situation that they precipitated themselves.

As one of the Sequoia employees points out, if it’s true that the company purposely subverted our elections, they should be made to pay. It’s a serious charge that should be fully investigated. But, if the allegations are substantiated, how exactly would the guilty parties pay? Could a monetary fine of whatever magnitude make up for what’s been done to our country, to our dead and wounded soldiers, to our devastated economy, badly tarnished national image, to our courts skewed irrevocably rightward, and to the broken and battered citizens of New Orleans? The list goes on and on. While we might all wish to press the rewind button and somehow go back prior to Election Night 2000, that simply is not an option. What can we do besides throw up our hands?

What is possible is to go forward into any proposed election reform with our eyes wide open. We should not accept what anyone says without proof – whether they are vendors, supposed experts, elections officials, or legislators in our nation’s capital. Computer security analyst Bruce Schneier, in his August 15 newsletter, discusses the California “top-to-bottom” review of the voting systems. http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0708.html Unlike others who have rushed to praise SoS Bowen for the unprecedented analysis, Schneier assesses it differently. It’s worth taking a close look at his perspective. He says,

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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