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Black Box Voting to Wash. DC Council re: Proposed Election Reforms

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Note that this letter deals with issues that are national in scope. In keeping with our priorities at Black Box Voting, deals with the core issue of public rights in public elections in addition to addressing specific talking points against no-fault absentee and for checks and balances for the same-day registration process. (PDF version here: The link to this flash video was removed for security reasons

Currently Washington D.C. has need-based absentee voting, an acceptable practice which limits risk to about 12% of the vote pool and provides checks and balances missing with no-fault absentee. Need-based absentee voting provides key statistical information. This kind of information has been used to identify absentee ballot fraud in the past.(5) This information will be missing with no-fault absentee voting.

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2. SAME DAY REGISTRATION: We commend D.C. for proposing to implement this. Same day registration is a better option than provisional ballots. It solves problems of purging and caging with fewer attack vectors. However, without adequate checks and balances, same-day registration is ripe for fraud.

(a) The registration cards containing identifying information must be available for public review on request;
(b) Full name and address needs to be included on poll book sign-in.

Problems we've seen with same-day registration: In New Hampshire, we have videotaped poll book same-day registrants inserted with just a list of names and NO ADDRESS, a fraud-ridiculous practice. New Hampshire requires names and addresses on the poll book sign in, but they did not follow this requirement, at least for the town of Woodstock in the 2008 Primary election. Because New Hampshire prohibits the public from examining the registration card filled out with same-day registrations, it was not possible to verify and authenticate New Hampshire same-day registrants. Someone could simply go through the phone book and add names at the end of the poll book list. (Adding to our concerns, we videotaped the Woodstock poll book -- called a "checklist" in New Hampshire election terminology -- as it was being carted around in a transport van driven by a couple of file clerks, a van that was not going to or coming from anywhere near the town Woodstock.)

If you implement same-day registration, will Washington D.C. (a) require full name and address on poll sheets and (b) allow the public to review actual registration cards? Without those two safeguards, this practice is indeed ripe for fraud, as some critics have charged.

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3. PUBLIC CONTROLS: At issue here are the rights of the PUBLIC, rather than the rights of political parties (political parties have no standing under the United States Constitution; the public does). It is the public who has standing to be able to see, verify and authenticate all essential phases in public elections.

The high court for the nation of Germany has recently determined that its e-voting machines violate the German Constitution because they conceal crucial components of the election from the public. The court did not specifically ban voting machines, but it did ban any process which conceals the counting from the public, and it also specified that the processes must be understandable by the public without need for special expertise, and that no after-the-fact process (like spot checks) can substitute for public scrutiny of the actual counting of all the ballots. The same principles apply in the USA.

Please begin to think about how we can restore the counting of the ballots in Washington D.C. to public view. Other US locations are beginning to implement projects to honor public rights in our public elections, and we hope you will join them.

One method is that which Germany returned to, nationwide, this year: Public hand counting. Now, that's no good if ballots are counted out of public view, and substituting political party representatives does not suffice. But public hand counting at the polling place is a far more elegant solution than most people think, if done properly and in public view, allowing the public to videotape the announced publicly counted result (to deter the simple fraud tactic of writing down the wrong number on submission form.)

Public rights can be honored with optical scan machines by adding simple, inexpensive steps. One method would be to allow the public to videotape the face of every ballot before ballots are transported away from the polling place (for example, requiring poll workers to deal ballots out like a deck of cards to allow the public to capture evidence of the input to optical scanners, so that the public can compare the input to the output). This costs nothing; approximately 1,000 ballots can be shown for videotaping in 30 minutes.

As for absentee ballots, Whatcom County, (Wash.), citizens have set up a reasonably good public process to review and manually count ballot batches being scanned. I will be happy to put you in touch with Whatcom County citizen groups and election officials upon request. And in Humboldt County (Calif.) citizens and election officials cooperate to independently scan ballots for release to the public, a good process which uncovered an important counting flaw in the Diebold ballot tabulation system.

Please do give careful thought to how a "public election" can be truly public if crucial processes are concealed from the public. Cryptography, by the way, does not suffice at all since it does not allow the public to validate all votes. Technology proposals just transfer the problem to another entity; they don't solve public rights issues, but do add to cost while imperiling political privacy. Sadly for the e-voting industry, the fact is that simple, no-cost, low-tech measures can improve public rights without any new purchasing and without maintenance contracts or special licensing fees.

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Requiring the public to "trust" insiders is not a true democratic system; in fact, requiring the public to trust government insiders is a hallmark of communist and dictatorships which pretend to be democracies.

The public right to see, verify and authenticate all parts of public elections is an inalienable right, a human right. You can't have liberty without self-government; you don't have self-government if insiders are allowed to conceal essential parts of the election from the public. That is a subtle transfer of power, from the public to insiders.

The article I read about the D.C. reforms states that D.C. is a national leader in this area. Not yet. But you will be a national leader when you recognize, protect and reinstall public rights for all essential phases of your elections. We at Black Box Voting look forward to this, and hope to see you make strides in this area.

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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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