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My Election Reform Wish List

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On Wednesday of this week (July 25) there will be a hearing on Sen. Diane Feinstein's bill, S. 1487, called The Ballot Integrity Act of 2007.

Among other problems with this bill, S. 1487 hands over a great deal of control to the Election Assistance Commission, which is composed of presidential appointees. That's a terrible idea which completely politicizes the election process. We all need to stand strong against such a foolish and anti-democratic idea.

There's a great deal more about S. 1487, and a lot of drawbacks to the bill. OpEd News readers know that S. 1487 has been reviewed thoroughly and expertly by Teresa Hommel, and also by VotersUnite.org in two excellent and detailed posts here and here, so I'm not going to rehash the heavy lifting that's already been done in analyzing this badly flawed bill. Read these excellent posts and you'll know more about S. 1487 and the problems therewith than the Senators do.

Instead of going over S. 1487 again, here is my partial wishlist for a few basic provisions of federal legislation regulating American elections. I don't think any of these provisions are out of the mainstream thinking in America, and I don't think any of them would be more expensive or more difficult to implement than the hodge-podge of provisions in S. 1487 and HR 811. In fact, I think some of them would be less costly and easier to implement, and all of them would create a better, more secure election system in America, which would in turn lead to a stronger, more secure, democratic republic.

And isn't that what we all want?

First and foremost, each vote in every election, no exceptions of any kind, must have an actual, official, legal paper ballot. I don't mean a paper trail or a receipt, but an actual legal BALLOT. And it's the BALLOTS that should be counted.

These ballots must be on heavy weight paper, and must have all the necessary information thereon to make them a legal, anonymous ballot.

My preferred method of creating the ballots would be with touch screen computers and printers, because I believe that hand marking the ballots could lead to tampering. I remember reading about the elections in Chicago years ago when those who were counting ballots would have a piece of pencil lead under a fingernail, and they would use that small piece of pencil lead to spoil a ballot by making marks on it. Ballots created with computers and printers have no handwritten marks on them, and would be more resistant to ballot tampering.

In my perfect world, the voter goes into the booth and, using a touch screen computer, makes the selections for each of the races/propositions germane to that election. Then, when the voter has made his/her selections, the voter pushes the "Print" button and an actual, legal ballot is printed out on heavy weight paper. Pushing "Print" prints the ballot and also wipes the computer's memory of that vote, thereby ensuring ballot secrecy.

Then, the voter has the responsibility to pick up the ballot and look it over, making sure that the ballot is a true reflection of the voter's choices. If a voter chooses not to look the ballot over, that's their choice, albeit a stupid one.

If a voter, either by accident or by choice, casts no vote for a particular race or proposition (an "undervote"), the printed ballot would clearly state this so the voter is aware of it. The voter can then make a choice for that race, or decline to do so. Undervotes would then be the responsibility of the voter.

If the voter isn't happy with the ballot, I'd like to see a cross-cut shredder right there in the booth, and the voters can destroy the not-accurate ballots. Then it's back to the touch screen to try again.

A good example of how a printed ballot could look, and for that matter a voting system that could be used in this process (with slight changes to the system), can be found at the TruVote International website. If the TruVote creator, the brilliant Athan Gibbs, hadn't been killed in an auto accident, America might well be using TruVote today, and our democracy would be all the stronger for it.

When the voter is satisfied that the ballot is a true reflection of the voter's choices, the voter then puts the ballot in a privacy envelop (a stack of them should be in the booth) and then leaves the booth to hand it to the election official who then, in sight of the voter, puts the envelop in the locked ballot box.

At the end of the election, it's the BALLOTS that should be counted, and counted locally, precinct by precinct. In my happy-happy world, the law would forbid counting invisible electronic bits and bites created by the computers. The computers and printers used to create the ballots would be little more than touch screen word processors with printers attached; the voters would use them to create and print the ballot, and nothing more. The BALLOTS are what should be counted, and in case of a recount, the ballots are ready to be re-examined.

If this process were federal law, a great deal of doubt about electronic voting machines would simply disappear. Machines hacked? The voters will know it when their ballots aren't accurate. Machines malfunctioning? Printers not working right? Again, the voters will know it. If the voting machines are only serving to create a ballot which the voter can look at, read and verify, the machines (and the corporations that make them) won't be running our elections for us. The power of the ballot would once again be in the hands of the voters, where it should be.

As for counting the ballots, I'd prefer to see each ballot counted by hand at the local precinct level, but I understand that isn't practical in some larger precincts. Optical scanners can be used, and if the election is close, a hand recount might be necessary.

Of course optical scanners can be hacked or malfunction, and thus a random sample ballot recount of 10% of the ballots (or greater) should be required for every election, no exceptions.

The ballots are the official record of the election, and the ballots are there to be counted, recounted, and reviewed by human eyes.

Another important point: the voters should be able to observe the counting of the ballots. I'm not saying the voters should be able to heckle the election workers, as the Bush thugs did during the Florida recount in 2000. Nor should they be able to handle the ballots or otherwise interfere in the process of counting the votes. But the elections and the votes belong to us, the voters. No arrogant election official should be able to ban voters from watching the vote count process. The elections belong to us, not the voting machine companies, the election officials, or the government. We should be able, by law, to observe the process.

Federal law should require that the ballots be kept for a set period of time, the minimum of which should be at least until after the next election.

It would be important to make sure that each precinct is properly supplied with computers, printers, blank paper ballots for printing, privacy envelops, and redundant back up equipment for all these items, including cables and every other component necessary to keep everything working throughout election day. I would bet that if we kill the secret, anti-democracy DRE machines, the savings would more than cover the cost of the supplies and backup supplies for most of the country, as well as training on how to hook up the computers and printers, refill paper in the printers, change toner cartridges, etc.

Another thing I'd like to see is federal law forbidding any component of an election system from having a wireless, infrared, or internet connection. Each component should stand alone and not be networked to any other device. And no voting data transmitted via the internet, either.

Another important provision is an exception to the proprietary information laws for all voting system components. Proprietary information laws are great for almost any product, but not for voting machines or voting system components.

If a company spends the time and money on research and development to build the proverbial "better mousetrap," that company should have the legal right to keep what makes their mousetrap better a secret, so they can then exploit that technology and outsell their mousetrap competitors. Proprietary information laws provide legal rights to companies protecting their trade secrets, and punishment for those who steal such trade secrets. That's a very good thing.

But there should be exceptions to the proprietary information laws for election system components. Voting machines and other voting system components aren't like other products. Mousetraps, carburetors, computer monitors, etc. don't carry the weight of our democratic republic on their shoulders. We don't count on these products to help us execute the primary function of a citizen in a democracy - voting.

The only thing secret about our elections should be the secret ballot. The machines used to create, process and tabulate these ballots must be absolutely transparent. No secret machines, no secret software. If companies that make these machines refuse to accept that proprietary information laws don't apply to voting system components, then the voting machine companies are cordially invited to get the hell out of the voting machine business. Either make your equipment transparent (metaphorically, of course) or get out of the business. Don't like it, Diebold? Don't want to do it, ES&S? Unhappy about this, Hart InterCivic? Okay, then buh-bye, and good riddance to bad trash!

There are many other details that would need to be worked out in legislation. The exact method for counting the ballots, methods of securing and storing the ballots, requirements for counting provisional, absentee and military ballots, laws to prevent voter intimidation, vote caging, and voter dis-information (remember the "Republicans vote on Tuesday, Democrats on Wednesday" flyers in passed around in Ohio in 2004?), requirements for signs in the voting booth urging voters to look at the ballot and verify its accuracy ... the list goes on and on. But if the provisions I've written about are enshrined in federal law, we'll have taken a huge step towards returning the power of elections to the voters.
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Stephen Heller is famous as the "Diebold Whistleblower". He turned over much evidence of Diebold's defrauding of the State of California and for, his efforts, was rewarded with a three felony count indictment.

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