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Protecting democracy isn't nutty

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Message Paul Jacobs


On two separate occasions, Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione has referred to Secretary of State Debra Bowen as "nuts" or "nutty" for having the audacity to test and conditionally recertify voting systems found to be vulnerable to tampering.

While Tavaglione resorts to name-calling, last month Ms. Bowen was named a winner of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for challenging the reliability of electronic voting systems. The award is presented annually to public servants who have made decisions of conscience without regard for personal or professional consequences.

It confounds me how Tavaglione and Supervisor Jeff Stone act like babies when it comes to these voting machines. Babies will cry when you take away a favorite toy after you discover it's dangerously coated with lead paint. Voting machines have the potential to poison the well of democracy.

Stone is a pharmacist by trade and relies heavily on science in his occupation. How can he reject the science that analyzed a number of voting systems and found them to be insecure?

It took courage for Bowen to severely restrict the use of touch-screen voting machines after university computer scientists determined that they could be hacked. The decision infuriated voting machine manufacturers and their advocates serving as county election officials. There have been cries and complaints that the machines weren't tested in real-world conditions.

The real world recently showed us that besides being courageous, Bowen was correct in her action. A March news article revealed that each of 300 separate computer servers in an East Coast supermarket chain had been infected with malicious software that sent credit card information offshore for three months before being detected.

The attack involved a level of sophistication that seemed to surprise even some computer security experts. The first sign of the software breach was when a credit card company notified the Hannaford chain of the fraudulent activity.

Nobody rechecks much of anything three months after an election, and any hidden malware is likely to remain undiscovered forever.

Money is precious and financial institutions go to great lengths to protect their digital transactions. Hannaford had its software certified for security a year ago and again as recently as Feb. 27. If nefarious programmers have the capacity and inclination to steal information, what would it be worth to be able to steal an election?

Bowen is certainly deserving of this recognition, but all is not well just because most of us are now using paper ballots. The ballots are counted with the use of high-speed optical scanners that use secret, proprietary software to tally the votes. The touch-screen cartridges made a bad system ridiculously vulnerable, and the removal of 80 percent of the voting machines from the precincts only lessens the risk.

We must insist that our ballots be counted in the precincts and then checked against a central tally of the votes. Audit methods that ensure a statistical validity of the results must be employed, and the counting process has to be transparent to the public.

It isn't nutty to take steps to protect a democracy that is more precious than money. It takes courage to seek the facts and then act upon them. Where is that courage in our county seat of government?

Paul Jacobs is a regular columnist for The Californian. E-mail him at

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Paul has worked in health care for the past 30 years and writes a weekly column for a local newspaper in California. He is involved in local civics, a member of Citizens for Democracy, Temecula Valley and active in the election integrity movement. (more...)
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