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"Debate with a Chair" - Part 1 - Do changes in democracy deserve public debate?

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Part 1 of 7 

Below, you will get a glimpse of the passionate behind the scenes arguments about the direction that electoral changes, and democracy itself, are taking right now. After reading the introductory debate below, you may participate in the debate by posting comments below this article. 

The fabric of your democracy is being altered without any public debate.

Voting rights advocates are split on whether proposed legislation will restore confidence or nail the coffin shut on our representative democracy.  Our urging for public debate has not been accepted, and due to the importance of the issues involved, Black Box Voting is attempting to develop a more public dialog on these issues, as a public service.

We have culled through over one thousand back-channel e-mails, in which well-known election reform and voting rights leaders on both sides have argued their case.  

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Because those with opposing points of view disagree with the value of a public debate, we have represented their arguments with an empty chair, along with an invitation for them to join this debate at any time.  

One new issue in the "Debate with a Chair" will be published each day from now through the Fourth of July.

Are we facing a "clear and present danger" to democracy?

We are on the cusp of enacting massive changes in our election system for the second time in five years. These legislative changes quietly rewrite how elections are conducted – how we will certify the upcoming presidential election, what machinery we'll vote on, our litigation rights, election administration timelines and – most important – the fundamental checks and balances designed to give citizens sovereignty over their own government: states' rights, the public right to know, and secret vote counting.  

At issue: How changes in US election policies impact the following ...  

(1) The necessity for a free people to be able to remove either honest or corrupt governance in order to remain free. This is the essence of citizen control, as contrasted with government control of elections.

(2) The equality of all citizens

(3) The importance of distrusting any shift towards concentration of power

(4) Respect for the rights of average voters (not just experts) to deeply understand and be capable of evaluating their own voting system. (Experts = concentration of power.)  

First: A debate over whether changes in democracy deserve a debate  

One set of election reformers believes that the only realistic path to improvement is to pass paper trail legislation for 2008, regardless of what rights will be compromised away with that promise. Among the groups and leaders in this category are VoteTrustUSA, Verified Voting, People for the American Way, MoveOn and several computer professionals, including Avi Rubin, David Dill and Barbara Simons.  

Another set of voting rights advocates – groups involved in front-lines election watchdog work, election litigation efforts and grass roots citizen empowerment -- believe that the pending legislation represents a danger to representative democracy itself. While these voting rights advocates agree on the need for paper ballots, they believe the other changes piggybacked into current paper trail legislation will destabilize our democracy. Among these groups and leaders: Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting; Nancy Tobi, co-founder of  Democracy for New Hampshire; Paul Lehto, co-founder of Psephos; Election Defense Alliance; VotersUnite; Brad Friedman, of Bradblog; Mary Ann Gould, of Citizens for Voting Integrity; Coalition for Visible Ballots, Vote Rescue, author Mark Crispin Miller and computer expert Dr. Rebecca Mercuri. In an unusual alliance, and often for different reasons, most elections officials and the National Association of Secretaries of State also oppose the legislation. 

Citizens who normally look to us for guidance are confused. Leaders are aligned on opposite sides. Groups that normally are adversaries find themselves in alliance, and groups that should be on the same side discover they are opponents.

What does this mean? "Debate with a Chair" series will help you get up to speed quickly so that you can evaluate the issues yourself.  

Back-channel argumentation on changes to democracy have been heated

 Here are some of the arguments that have been flying through our e-mails:

"Whoever is giving us this is someone not fighting for – or even framing – election reform in terms of democracy, says Paul Lehto, co-founder of Psephos, and the election rights attorney who got the touch-screens kicked out of Snohomish County in Washington, and fought the high profile San Diego "CA50" case.  

Should changes be made in the foundation of democracy without public discussion?

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Paul Lehto shot out a challenge to key players in the current configuration of election reform legislation:  

"For the good of the republic, will you engage in a public debate, in the city of  your choice, on a date within the next two weeks or so, with a jury of say 100 citizens, on the question of whether [proposed legislation] HR 811 meets the necessary standards for free people who are citizens of a representative democracy like ours? If I am not important enough, is there anybody that you would debate on the question of what democracy requires in a voting system?"

 Following Lehto's question, a new query regarding televising the debate was added into the mix by citizen Chuck Garner.  

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Empty Chair: "I have no interest in participating in a debate, televised or otherwise...I've already won. Your demand for a debate is a desperate attempt to gain credibility at my expense, and for an opportunity to confuse the issue." 

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Bev Harris, founder of the national voting rights watchdog organization, Black Box Voting, weighed in:  "One of the core issues in such debates should be how citizens are allowed to retain control of their government when government controls the mechanisms of  elections, which mostly take place in secret. I think it would be an excellent public education strategy to host a series of debates nationwide, with proponents of democratic elections vs. proponents of techno-elections."  

But advocates of the new legislation were protective of the bill's sponsor, Rush Holt [D-NJ]:  

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Empty Chair: "If I were Rush Holt, I'd be damned if I would subject myself to the kind of abuse hurled at him from voting integrity advocates ... to say nothing of all of the attacks coming from election officials," said a board member of one of the national election reform groups.  

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Jonathan Simon of Election Defense Alliance supported the idea of a debate. "Bev Harris constructively calls for a public debate on the core of the critical issue we are all facing, a debate which might possibly help resolve the confusions of highly informed people such as myself, let alone bring some much needed awareness to the less informed."  

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Paul Lehto repeated his challenge: "I think we both benefit from an informed and aroused citizenry, so at an important level a debate would be a win-win situation for democracy. Do you accept?"  

No dice.  

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Empty Chair: "My side won this debate before it started, because the anti-HR 811 forces have never presented a feasible alternative." This came from one of the most academically decorated supporters of the HR 811 legislation.

Overriding Lehto's curiosity about how those votes on the debate were counted, high profile political blogger Brad Friedman of weighed in: 

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Brad Friedman: "That is simply untrue. Many of us offered very specific and very feasible alternatives."  

An aggressive proponent of the new legislation who first opposed it but now supports it, stepped into the fray:  

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Empty Chair: "I would recommend strongly not to give Paul Lehto any credibility by debating him."  

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"Then I'm sure you will call for a debate with me publicly," said Friedman.  

But this offer was declined.  

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Empty Chair: "Without two or more viable alternatives, there's no point in having a debate -- just take the one policy that is available and do it."  

Take the one policy that is available and "do it"?

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Paul Lehto objected to that frame: "The question should be presented more accurately... in terms of fundamental voting rights in our representative democracy," he said, "I'd like to see Holt proponents actually wrestle with these things."  

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Sheila Parks, a veteran activist from Boston who has been arguing for Hand-Counted Paper Ballots (HCPB), women's rights, and rights for people of color, jumped in:  "I strongly urge that both Bev Harris and Nancy Tobi are part of this debate, that seems to be forming with all straight white men -- as they duplicate the dominant culture. Not the kind of democracy I am at all interested in and no better than what we have now - no matter how many Holt Bills get legislated or do not get legislated. And Rebecca Mercuri too."  

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"I'll debate anyone, any time, anywhere," said Nancy Tobi, co-founder of Democracy for New Hampshire, who views the proposed legislation as "a clear and present danger."  

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Empty Chair: "An hour of Paul Lehto blowing hot air and quoting 18th century statesmen vs. me saying 'Where's your bill?' is not going to be very illuminating. No more 'debating' for me, at least on this topic."  

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Mary Ann Gould, chair of the Coalition for Voting Integrity and host of "Voice of the Voters," a radio talk show which focuses on voting rights issues, says she has tried for months to get anyone -- any time -- to defend the proposed legislation. She's had just about everybody who's anybody in the election reform movement on her show, but her requests to discuss issues with proponents of the sweeping changes in the 2007 legislation are always answered with: "No."

 Had enough? Perhaps it's time to distill out the key arguments from both sides so you can make up your own mind.  

To recap what we'd like to discuss here:  How do changes in U.S. election policy affect ...  

(1) The necessity for a free people to control their own elections in order to remain free

(2) The equality of all citizens

(3) The importance of distrusting any shift towards concentration of power

(4) Respect for the rights of average voters (not just experts) to deeply understand and be capable of evaluating their own voting system.  

This is your country. These are your rights. Your election system will be one of the legacies you leave to your children. So, when would be a good time to navigate this intellectual terrain?  

(How about now?)

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Bev Harris: Can we, then, start with clarifying this point of common ground, which underlies selection of voting mechanics.  

1. Can we agree that freedom depends on the ability of citizens to control their own elections, holding them beyond the power of the government to manipulate?

2. Do we have consensus that we have the right to dislodge public officials that we don't want, and if so, is this right to vote people out of office fundamental to democracy?  

3. And if so, does the current system secure that right?  

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Paul Lehto: I suggest piercing through literally many truckloads of extraneous technical info by simply asking if the computer sitting next to you is secure against your own attempts to manipulate it. If a computer cannot be protected from an insider, it fails the most basic test for self-government because it is not secured from the government's potential tampering.  

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Empty Chair: Of course there is no bill for Hand Counted Paper Ballots("HCPB") in this Congress. It didn't get reintroduced, because there was no support in the last Congress. Of course one can make some people happy by proposing a bill that will never ever pass. That makes everyone feel good, eh? Even the vendors and election officials would be happy, because of course a bill calling for HCPB will never pass Congress.  

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Mary Ann Gould: We have been approaching from the "what to do" level, drawn into the "fixing" symptoms started by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). No one wins from this level of focus!

Our nation was founded on a Vision -- overarching ideas -- such as people could govern themselves, that all power flows from and to them; that citizens have the right to overthrow and replace governments that do not serve our interests.  Then the Constitution was written to create principles to support the ideas/beliefs of the Declaration.

In turn all legislation is supposed to be within the framework of the Constitution based on the values of the Declaration. Without an overarching framework, we lack a guide to develop and evaluate legislative, regulatory and government processes properly.

We then get a mess like HAVA and a further patchwork like the mutated Holt and radical Feinstein bills.  We must have that framework of overarching principles to both guide and evaluate changes in how we conduct elections.

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Bev Harris: Can we, then, start with clarifying this point of common ground, with underlies selection of voting mechanics:  

- Do we have consensus that the right to dislodge a crooked government is fundamental to democracy? This refers back to the inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence.  

If we agree on that, we can then proceed to discuss which mechanics secure and protect that right, and which ones don't.  

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Empty Chair: Let me boil it down:

1. Where is your bill?

2. Where are its cosponsors?  

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Paul Lehto: There can be no discussion? This is all democracy deserves?

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Jonathan Simon: The antagonists in this debate -- call them the democrats and the cybertechnocrats -- are not converging on common ground. They are miles apart, loaded with distrust and contempt, speaking different languages. Is it any wonder solutions seem so maddeningly beyond reach?  

(How about this for debate points that are "within reach"):

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Nancy Tobi:

1) The proposed legislation codifies counting votes in secret;

2) The proposed legislation cements control of secret vote counting to the executive branch;

3) The proposed legislation provides sets the scene for unlimited litigation on election challenges;

4) The proposed legislation has many big ticket items that are unfunded;

5) The proposed legislation will not provide relief for 2008.

We want: A simple stripped down bill  

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Empty Chair: Here is the menu of choices:

- HR 811

- bupkus  

So that's it? If so, perhaps more light needs to be shined on how the original 5-page Holt Bill mutated into a 62-page Christmas Tree bill, with ornaments hung on it by one special interest group after the next. Do the "activists" who have been involved in the Holt Bill really represent the voting rights community at all? And if they do, why hide from the simple act of debating these issues in public?

Is this all democracy deserves?

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To be continued ...  

* * * * * * * * * * *  

Schedule of Empty Chair debate topics:

June 28 - Thursday 1) Public debate over whether changes in the structure of democracy deserve public debate  

June 29 - Friday 2) Public debate over whether flawed election legislation is better than no election legislation  

June 30 - Saturday 3) Public debate over voter intent vs. voter verification (DRE controversies, are audits the way to go...)  

July 1 - Sunday 4) Public debate over concentration of power vs. dispersed power (EAC issues, etc)  

July 2 - Monday 5) Public debate over the public right to know  

July 3 - Tuesday 6) Public debate over litigation and enforcement issues

FOURTH OF JULY - 7) Public debate over the road map back to a real representative democracy  

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Bev Harris is executive director of Black Box Voting, Inc. an advocacy group committed to restoring citizen oversight to elections.
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