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John Gideon, R.I.P. - and the "Gideon Initiative" for citizenship ownership of our elections

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Vendors typically maintain tight control over their equipment and software: This means states need to pay them for service and programming help when there are problems, and contributes to our elections’ lack of transparency.  For instance, when North Carolina’s State Board of Elections in 2005 requested access to Diebold's software, following a state law requiring the Board to do so, the company simply refused.

When there is a clear problem with an election’s administration, outsourcing allows for an additional layer of obfuscation and finger-pointing: The much-maligned contractors quickly go on the defensive — instinctively denying culpability, and invoking property rights as they strive to prevent scrutiny of their software and records. Last fall, for instance, Sequoia tried to block the Washington, DC government from access to its records, even as its machines recorded thousands of false over-votes.

The election equipment companies have nested in a rather cozy nook, and will do all they can to maintain their standing.  In service of that end, like many corporations, they have discovered the benefits of the “revolving door,” and close relationships with politicians.  A few stunning examples:

-Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel ran ES&S — and failed to reveal that fact in mandatory disclosures — as he won an upset bid for Senate in a state that overwhelmingly used ES&S equipment.

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-California Secretary of State Bill Jones became a lobbyist and spokesperson for Sequoia in 2002 — the same year he ran for Governor.  Nou notes that upon leaving office, elections officials in at least four other states have also recently gone to work as lobbyists for the voting machine industry.

-The CEO of Diebold famously wrote a fundraising letter for George W. Bush in 2003, asserting that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year” — even as his company sought to win Ohio’s multimillion dollar contract for new equipment from the Republican-run state government.  (Ohio, of course, was to be the locus of the greatest vote-tallying and administration controversy come Election Day, 2004.)

These sorts of relationships have understandably exacerbated the public’s concerns about opportunity for premeditated malfeasance, and make it clear that the contractors are not disinterested in the outcomes of the elections they facilitate.

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For all of the above reasons, it’s time to develop an alternative.  States should start moving towards systems that are wholly owned and managed by the public.  Oklahoma is the vanguard of this nascent movement: In the 1990s it took ownership of its voting machines and source code.  The state updates its own code, and recently developed a statewide optical scanner system, without fussing with contractors. Other states can learn from its experience– and from their own.

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