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Sci Tech    H3'ed 1/31/11

SC Republican Commodities Broker Uses FOIA to Investigate Electronic Voting

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My guest is South Carolina commodities broker, Frank Heindel. Welcome to OpEdNews. But we're not here to discuss pork bellies, orange juice, or the vagaries of the market today. I'd like to talk about your interest and concern about our elections. Can you tell our readers how you first became interested in this topic?

Technically, I am a grain trader - predominantly trading in corn, soybeans and wheat.

I first became interested in our voting machines after the Ohio EVEREST report was released in December 2007, which detailed how the iVotronic machines were unsuitable to be using for safe, reliable elections. After Alvin Greene won, I figured it was time to roll up my sleeves and try to understand what was really happening. I like Carl Sagan's quote about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence so I dove in, looking for all the evidence I was legally entitled to view. I have always been skeptical of any type of claims derived from black boxes, whether from commodity futures trading schemes, or economists' claims of outlandish numbers of jobs being created.

Good for you! How did you know how to go about it and where to look?

I had done quite a few Freedom of Information Act Requests (FOIA) in the past and found it to be one of the most powerful tools available for a citizen to use to really find out what is going on with our government. It is even more valuable today than it was 5 or 10 years ago, due to the decline in investigative reporting done by the larger newspapers.  I sent off several FOIA requests to the State Election Commission as well as the local Charleston County Election Commission after Alvin Greene won. For instance, our Charleston County election director was on the TV news and stated there was a paper trail so I asked via the FOIA for a copy of the paper trail. I had no real idea how an electronic election really worked so I had a very steep learning curve in the beginning. Over the last six months, I have filed over 20 FOIA requests.

Luckily, you already had some familiarity with FOIA requests. I've never filed one and I'm assuming that most of our readers have not, either. How did you decide what to ask for? How long did it take the authorities to respond? Did they drag their heels? Walk us through it, please, Frank.

A FOIA request is a very simple process for any citizen and you do not have to be a lawyer. I email my FOIA requests, and in the Subject line I label it: FOIA request. I usually begin with, "Pursuant to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, I request the following information."  In  South Carolina, state agencies are required to respond to your request within 15 business days. 
The vast majority of all documents are available to the public. Agencies that are transparent and accountable have websites with most information the public wants to see online. I started asking Charleston County  for things like copies of the reports filled out by the technicians working on Election Day, copies of emails to and from election officials and ES&S, and copies of emails detailing problems on Election Day.  I also requested a CD with all the voting data to verify the paper trail.  I requested the State Election Commission send me documents relating to our state laws, like up-to-date ES&S source codes being in escrow, and copies of the certification report that was done on our voting machines. Since I did not know what I did not know, I initially threw out a pretty big net.

I encountered resistance trying to obtain the voting machine certification report from the State Election Commission. They initially decided it was proprietary information that I was not entitled to see. I view myself as a watchdog, so when someone refuses to give me something I feel legally entitled to see, I start barking. I emailed the Governor's attorney and told him the State Election Commission was violating the Freedom of Information Act and asked for help in late July 2010. 
The Governor's attorney immediately wrote the SEC an email, copying me, telling them to give me the information I had requested. I thought I had done my duty as a citizen and felt pretty good. But the SEC did not send me the report until the middle of November, after the election. The certification report turned out to be a joke. Everything of any value in the report was redacted so the voters could never see if  any tests were run on our voting machines or how our machines performed during testing.

Regarding the CD of voting information, it took eight weeks to receive the information, as opposed to 15 business days. Over the years, I have  identified warning signs to alert a citizen to problems. If agencies are late responding, or  bring in lawyers to answer simple requests, or deny your right to public information, or try to price the information so high to run you off,  it is time to really investigate and start digging deeper. If the FOIA process breaks down, I view it as democracy failing.

So what have you learned about the elections in your area that you didn't know before you received the information through FOIA?  And what good does it do if they sit on the information until after Election Day, despite rules to the contrary?

I learned our iVotronic were actually made in a sweatshop in Manila even though the State Election Commission website states today, "The iVotronic voting units are produced by ES&S Election Systems in manufacturing locations in the United States." Also, the certification process these machines went through was a scam. There is no documentation available to the public as to what, if any, tests were performed. ES&S is not  keeping the updated source codes of our software in escrow as per our state law. In Charleston County, no documentation was kept as to who accessed the machines and what steps were taken to try to keep the machines running on Election Day when they were breaking down. So right off the bat, I know we are running our democracy on a  shoddily made machine, which has undergone no testing, has no source codes in escrow, with no accurate records being kept by the people who are fixing the machines. Initially, I found all of this information to be quite troubling.

Once I started looking over the electronic election files, I could see there were problems with machines unexpectedly shutting down numerous times during the day. The machines were not all performing flawlessly as the public had been repeatedly told. I had mistakenly presumed these voting machines were somehow at least as dependable as an ATM machine. Boy, was I wrong.  I began to acquire more election files from various counties and putting them on my website. But I did not have the skills necessary to extract useful data from the files, such as seeing if the votes were all being counted accurately.

Fortunately, a first-class team of computer scientists has stepped in and begun to analyze the data. My job is to get the files, and then hand them off to the experts to analyze. This group can take a handful of election files and basically audit the election and count the votes. Here is a portion of Chip Moore's report regarding Colleton County: 

..."After the November election, Travis Avant of Walterboro, a former Sheriff of Colleton County, contacted Mr. Heindel about some inconsistencies in the returns from his County. On election night, Colleton County reported, and this is still on the website for the state election commission, 13,045 votes in the race for Governor, 12,877 votes for Lt. Governor and 12,733 votes in the U.S. Senate contest. However, as Eric Campbell, the Executive Director of the Colleton County Board of Elections admits, and our audit confirms, only 11,656 votes were cast in Colleton County in the November election.

1588 absentee votes were cast in Colleton County in the general election. Director Campbell says this is the correct number and our review of the audit file agrees. Yet in the certified returns for the County, the number of votes cast on absentee ballots in 14 separate county-wide contests exceeds 1588, some by more than 300 votes. The director has thus far refused to recount the absentee votes. The audit information we have for Colleton County does not include ballot data for the absentee votes, so we cannot provide an accurate accounting. Today, 11 weeks after the election, the tally of votes in Colleton County is incorrect. Neither the County nor State Election Boards seem to be in much of a hurry to get the numbers right.

The auditors also found 13,501 votes missing from the input stream in the November 2010 Charleston county election as well as identifying 5,499 missing ballots from the June primary. That is 19,000 electronic ballots unaccounted for in Charleston County.

The members of the audit team are Duncan Buell, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of South Carolina, Eleanor Hare, an Associate Professor Emerita of Computer Science at Clemson University and a member of the Board of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, and Chip Moore, an award-winning animator and programmer in Cambridge, MA."

I did find out other interesting things as well. I was able to obtain emails from the State Election Commission discussing their strategy as to how to deal with the media concerning the problems I was uncovering, too.

What did you do with the disturbing evidence that you dug up? Did you contact the media? Grassroots groups? Who has been responsive to your discoveries?

Overall, there has been stiff resistance on the part of the major newspapers in South Carolina to publish anything critical of the voting machines. It would appear they do not want to risk losing the voters' confidence in our faith-based voting system by informing voters of any of these troubling details. The information the auditors are uncovering flies in the face of SC's catchy slogan, "Every vote matters and every vote counts."  However, the smaller newspapers and blogs are much more receptive. SC citizens and the smaller local newspapers are finding election problems, not the major newspapers. Yesterday, I notified the Charleston County Legislative Delegation that I need their help in locating the 19,000 missing ballots. I spoke last week at the Charleston County Democratic Party's forum on election integrity informing them about the audit group's findings.

Was that an odd coupling, you speaking at a local Democratic Party forum? You came into this as a Republican and I imagine you are still a Republican. Did you initially have a partisan agenda? If so, do you still?

I had no political agenda whatsoever when I began my investigation.  Putting party over principle is not healthy for our country in the long run. This is the one issue where everyone should come work together in a non-partisan manner. This is not a game between an R and a D. If I were asked to speak about the problems with our voting system to a group of South Carolina citizens, I would be honored to talk about what I have learned and share with them why our election system desperately needs changing, regardless of whether the citizens were vegetarians or Libertarians.

What is the Palmetto Project and why were they talking about you in those emails that you got from FOIA? 

Steve Skardon, the CEO of the Palmetto Project, was in charge of the process our state went through spending the majority of our HAVA funds to purchase the iVotronic machines. The Chairman of the Board of the Palmetto Project, Lee Bussell, also runs Chernoff Newman, which has a 2.485 million dollar PR and advertising contract with the State Election Commission. Here is an excerpt from a September 29, 2010 email exchange between Mr. Skardon and our State Election Commission regarding how to handle a reply to my questions about  voting machines unexpectedly shutting down: "Since the news media seems to be convinced that the machines are okay, I don't want Cindy or any reporter to think we are not responding forcefully to these people." 
This points out one of the biggest problems with our voting system. Almost no one understands if it is working, so perception and spin is everything.  Up until now, the newspaper editors and reporters did not have computer experts to examine the electronic files so  they were forced to simply trust whatever the state election commission, or Steve Skardon, told them.

So, the same folks are essentially spinning away any concern about the questionable voting machinery that they bought for the state.  Isn't that a clear conflict of interest? Did that not catch anybody's eye? Where's the press?

A conflict of interest is like pornography. You know it when you see it. There is no reason to be wasting taxpayer money hiring an expensive, well-connected advertising and PR firm. I have notified the press about all of this to the best of my abilities. I can only hope they do a better job in the future educating the voters about the problems with our voting system.

Parenthetically, you mentioned elsewhere that the State Election Commission is spending $40,000 a month to spin that the machines are working properly. That's a lot of spin. Why were you interviewed by Dan Rather Reports and did your information end up on the show?

I was interviewed by Dan Rather Reports and they aired the South Carolina segment prior to the November election. I discussed how I was stonewalled from getting public information and how I was uncovering problems with the iVotronics performance. The program began by showing a European voting machine being hacked in under a minute and how that helped wake up some European countries, like Germany and Ireland, to see the error of their ways. Now, they only use pen and paper. Our election commission refused to be interviewed by Dan Rather Reports . If you saw a program like 60 Minutes or Dan Rather Reports, where parents had documentation about their babies becoming ill from a particular baby food product and that company refused to be interviewed, would you continue to buy that baby food for your infant? We are trusting our voting system to unelected officials who are afraid to talk on camera. Dan Rather Reports is considering another trip to South Carolina, so if they come, I am hoping they get to interview the State Election Commission.

Rather is one of the few journalists who's done any in-depth reporting on electronic voting. Are you working with citizens concerned about election integrity outside of SC?

Indeed, Dan Rather is one of the few journalists who understands the very real risks electronic voting has to our democracy. Chip Moore, who has a post-graduate degree in computer science from Harvard, lives in Cambridge, MA, and has been a tremendous help sorting through the election files. He spent time growing up in Myrtle Beach, SC. Other than Chip Moore, everyone else I am working with regarding election integrity is in South Carolina.

Despite disturbing reports from all over the country seeping out in the last few years, many quite intelligent people still feel comfortable and secure with electronic voting. They say that computers are here to stay; we just need to tweak the system;  there's always been election fraud. Are we fighting an impossible, uphill battle then?  What would you say to them?

It is an uphill battle, no doubt about that. People have learned to trust computers. I bank online. I go to the ATM and sometimes do not even bother to count the cash or even get a receipt. Why? Because when I hit the $100 dollar cash button it has never spitted out $20 dollars or $200 dollars. I also can go online and verify my account.  Plus, the bank is audited annually. Our electronic banking is not "faith-based" but our voting machines are. Our elections are never independently audited. The machines are cheaply made and even though they only have to perform a few times a year, their performance is abysmal.

Four per cent of the voting machines in the June primary in Charleston County were re-calibrated on election day. That would be an unacceptable statistic in the private sector for an ATM machine, but on the iVotronics that run our democracy, nobody seems to care. Fraud flourishes in complex systems prone to errors, since it is so easy to attribute missing votes or over votes to "human error." These intelligent people you mention better wake up and demand higher standards and simply not accept the notion there is no way to prevent election fraud. Casting paper ballots that are then counted at the precinct level under video surveillance is simple and inexpensive. We also need to make the laws tougher on people convicted of election fraud if we really want honest elections.  

How about contacting Election Defense Alliance, Frank?  It sounds like you're on the same page. Anything else you'd like to add, before we wrap this up?

I will definitely contact the Election Defense Alliance. I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss South Carolina's broken election system. I trust your readers will help prove Thomas Jefferson correct when he stated, ". . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right. "

Amen to that; I'm all for a well-informed America. Thanks so much for talking with me, Frank. And for caring on the good fight for the benefit of us all, whatever our political persuasion. Good luck to you!


Frank recommends this website:

Watch 2006 HBO documentary, Hacking Democracy which with footage of hacking into a voting system without physical contact with a voting machine, all captured on camera
Good eye-opener for anyone who thinks electronic voting is safe

Dan Rather Reports: The Trouble with TouchScreens: transcript and video at BradBlog link  Original broadcast: August, 2007

Dan Rather Reports: Das Vote, October 26, 2010,   Transcript here 2.5 minute video clip:  Heindel is focus of this segment of Dan Rather Reports. 

Election Defense Alliance : (EDA) is a participatory organization of citizens collaborating at the local, state, and national levels to defend against electoral theft, establish transparent vote counting, and ensure that governments accountable to the people are legitimately elected.

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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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