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Sci Tech

Who Needs a Democracy When You Have iVotronic Voting Machines?

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On June 8, 2010, Alvin Greene, who was unemployed and had no campaign staff, no headquarters, no website, and was facing charges for showing online pornography to a college student, soundly defeated an established politician, Vic Rawl, a former state legislator and judge, in the South Carolina Democratic Senate primary to oppose incumbent Republican Jim DeMint.

Greene's victory was bizarre-even by South Carolina standards. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel, called the state "America's whoopee cushion."

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To Frank Heindel, a Charleston commodities broker, the primary's results confirmed his suspicions about the credibility of electronic voting machines. The EVEREST report, a comprehensive study of Ohio's electronic voting technology, concluded that the iVotronic machines manufactured by Electronic Systems and Software were subject to unsafe storage of data, casting an unlimited number of votes, and "ghost voting," which allowed ballots to be cast without the presence of a voter." South Carolina uses iVotronic machines.

Heindel then read media reports that quoted Marilyn Bowers, Charleston County election commissioner, and Marci Andino, South Carolina election commission director, as saying that not one voting machine had malfunctioned in any of the state's 46 counties.

"This is where my b.s. meter went off," said Heindel, who is a Republican.

The EVEREST report had detailed how seasoned computer scientists using the iVotronic machines encountered significant problems.

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"If the experts were unable to run our system in their academic surroundings, how could 46 county election directors manage to have no software problems in a real world election?" Heindel asked. "All the glowing statements from our election officials just seemed too good to be true.

Three days after the primary, Heindel sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the Charleston County and state election commissions seeking a list of malfunctions. In an email, Bowers rejected Heindel's request because she said the information belonged to Electronic Systems and Software.

Heindel was stunned because her response contradicted the state's constitution.

"Election law is very clear. Ballots are to be cast in private and counted in public. Without a paper ballot, it is impossible to be sure the machine accurately records the voter's intent," Heindel said. "The only way to count ballots in public with our system is to have the files available for public review. We should not trust our ballots to be secretly counted by a handful of unelected officials in a back room."

Gov. Mark Sanford's office ordered Bowers to comply with Heindel's request.  Heindel learned that Charleston County could not account for about 5,500 ballots.

Thus began what has become a two-year campaign for Heindel to make election results more transparent in South Carolina. This, he said, requires replacing the iVotronic voting machines, which doesn't have a paper trail, with paper ballots.

The iVotronic voting machines had come under criticism long before the EVEREST study. During the 2004 Presidential Election, questions were raised about the credibility of iVotronic machines in Ohio, which produced the margin of victory for the re-election of President George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry.

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After the 2008 presidential election, the Brennan Center for Law at the New York University of Law sent a letter to the secretaries of state of the 16 states, including South Carolina, that used the iVotronic machines, stating that voters had complained of "vote flipping," where they voted for one candidate or party, but another showed up on the review screen. "There is a good chance that at least part of this problem can be attributed to calibration on the iVotronic machines," the letter said.

The machines were then manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, whose previous chief executive, Walden O'Doul, had been a top fund-raiser for President Bush and had sent fund-raising letters to Ohio Republicans telling them he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president."

California, Ohio, and Florida were among the states that mothballed their electronic machines in 2009.

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Chris Lamb is a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, SC, he teaches courses in journalism and media studies. He has written hundreds of newspaper columns that have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles (more...)

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