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White House Agency Takes Aim at Paper Ballots

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I went to Washington, DC last week. Our nation's capital. I wish I could say that I went solely to enjoy the warm and nourishing hospitality of my food and lodging angel, Arlene. Or that I went to enjoy the May roses not found in New England until much later in the summer. I wish I could say that I went to embrace the massive willow oak in the park outside the congressional office buildings, or that I went just so that I could lie on my back on the grass in the park and feel the rays of the DC sun melt into my face.

But I went to DC for other reasons. I went to attend a meeting of the technological advisory group (TGDC) to the white house agency that oversees the nation’s voting systems, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), also known as the Commissioners of the Count. There, in the building where museum-like displays remind us of the accomplishments of our National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in areas as abstract and all encompassing as measuring time and space, the federal agency controlling how our votes are counted convenes periodically to review and authorize their ongoing plans for transforming the elections of the United States of America.

Last week, the techno-advisory group for the Commissioners of the Count was putting the final touches on a draft of the next version of their “Voluntary Voting System Guidelines”. Once the work of the techno-advisory group is completed, the Commissioners, four white house appointees, have the final say in approving these standards for e-voting equipment to be used in America's elections.

The guidelines are called "voluntary" because the US Constitution empowers the states, and not the federal government, to administer our elections. Theoretically the Commissioners of the Count can only "recommend" voting system standards to the states. But the reality is, their "guidelines" are nothing less than specifications for voting system technology.

The "guidelines" are, in fact, the Commission’s authorized blueprint for our election systems, which the e-voting industry uses to develop their products.

Additionally, there is an uncomfortable confluence between the Commission’s "voluntary" voting system standards and federal law. Congress stands ready to vote on a controversial piece of election reform legislation known as HR 811, aka the Holt Bill. Within its 62 pages of convoluted language, the bill has a little provision for all voting systems in the nation to convert ballot text into what Holt calls "accessible form". This means that voting jurisdictions must  have technology that converts written ballot text into other media such as audio, pictures or multiple languages. This is fairly complex technology. If the Holt bill passes with this provision, our cities, towns, and counties will be forking over substantial sums of cash for the privilege of adding an exceedingly opaque layer of technology to our elections.

This odd provision did not come out of nowhere. It came straight out of the techno-advisory group’s "voluntary" voting system guidelines, where it was inserted in 2005, against the advise of the nation's top state and local election officials. And there it sat, until along came Mr. Holt, who decided this "voluntary" standard would become the law of the land.

Effectively, the "guidelines" are not voluntary at all. They are the industry specifications that become the products sold to jurisdictions using e-voting equipment rather than hand counting their elections. And they become the law of the land whenever any particular congressional rep decides to toss them into the election reform law du jour.

Which is why I go to these meetings. The techno-advisory group consists of fourteen "specialists," appointed by the Commissioners of the Count, and is chaired by the Director of NIST. I go to observe the manner in which they fulfill their charter to "act in the public interest to assist the Executive Director of the Commission in the development of the voluntary voting system guidelines." I could sit home and watch their webcasts, or read their transcripts, but going in person to the meetings allows me to observe how these decision makers interact with each other. Who is friends with who. Who dares express independent thought, who goes along. It allows me to chat with them during breaks, or with others in the audience, such as senior executives from ES&S and Diebold, two of the larger e-voting companies in the nation.

Two months ago, I went to another of their meetings. I was taken aback at the opening remarks of EAC Chair, Donetta Davidson, who stood up, took the mike, and declared her concerns with paper ballots. "We must address the problems associated with counting paper ballots," she said. This surprised me because these guys are mostly interested in technology-related voting, and I couldn't quite figure where the matter of paper ballots fit in to their scheme. It surprised me too, because of all the problems we hear about in our election systems, rarely are they tracked back to paper ballots. More often than not, the problems have to do with electronic vote flipping (voters press the button for Candidate A but see Candidate B get their vote), machine failures, or anomolous but untrackable results lost in the inner ether of e-voting machines.

Coming from a state like New Hampshire, where hand counting of paper ballots is a time honored tradition and practice, I was confused about the intention of Chair Davidson's assertions. We know in New Hampshire that the tried and true methods for counting and handling paper ballots have stood us in good stead for hundreds of years. Contrary to the picture painted by Chair Davidson, the New Hampshire experience has shown that the public counting of paper ballots delivers integrity of election results far removed from the questions of fraud or failure found in many electronic voting systems.

But in March, 2007, EAC Chair Donetta Davidson was concerned about paper ballots, how they get counted, and how the Commissioners of the Count could address what she described as "the problems people have counting them". So concerned was Chair Davidson, in fact, that she rose to address her advisory group on the issue first thing in the morning of that particular meeting, with the directive that they look into the matter.

Chair Davidson's appeal apparently did not fall on deaf ears. In last week's follow up meeting, the techno-advisory group unveiled a whole new class of standards for their voting system guidelines: the paper ballots class. In conjunction with their declaration that "the entire voting system shall be verifiable," they expanded their purview to the design of paper ballots, which, as one member stated, "can be verified by the voter after he has marked it."

Their resolutions regarding paper ballots were fairly spare, not having, really, too much to say about this relatively simple and straightforward voting mechanism. Paper ballots stand in stark contrast to the high tech voting systems with which the TGDC otherwise engages itself in designing. The 750 pages of high tech software specifications found in the newest version of voting system guidelines is more up their alley.

So what did the techno-advisory group come up with in their recommendations for dealing with the "problem" of handling and counting paper ballots?

Paper ballots must now all be technology-enabled.

That's right. It is not enough that the Commissioners of the Count have busied themselves designing extraordinarily complex high tech voting systems, which will lead to the development of outrageously expensive and opaque voting machines.

Now, even the nation's paper ballots must be "machine readable."

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