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CO: Signature verification machines for mail ballots 2/2/08

Message Charles Corry
There are some simple, well-known rules for election fraud that have been tried and tested over a couple of centuries in the United States:
  • The smaller the election, the easier it is to steal, i.e., local elections are easier to corrupt than state elections, state elections are easier to corrupt than national ones (Deliver The Vote, p. 24).
  • Absentee or mail ballots are the current method of choice for election fraud and have been widely used for such fraud.
  • A secret ballot cannot be maintained when mail ballots are used.
  • The Chicago Rules of Election Fraud are widely available for anyone tempted to try their hand at this game.
  • Once an election begins any attempt at election fraud is virtually certain to succeed if it is not forestalled by protections already in place. The likelihood of prosecution is historically near zero and it is extremely rare for an election to be overturned even when fraud is proven.
Any rational individual concerned about honest elections would conclude that mail ballots should be strictly limited and not used at all, if possible, in small counties, towns, or special district elections.
However, after the Colorado Secretary of State, six months behind schedule, decertified many of the electronic voting machines used in this state in December 2007, there arose a statewide clamor from county clerks for all-mail-ballot elections in the 2008 presidential race, though that is prohibited under current law. While many of the large counties have little problem with conducting a precinct election using hand-marked paper ballots, the large majority of the smaller counties continue to claim the only way for a "successful" election in 2008 is by using mail ballots. The discerning reader will note from the above that these are exactly the locales where election fraud is most likely. However, it is often impossible to separate election fraud from simple incompetence, although the results are, coincidentally, usually the same.
What carefully isn't mentioned in the clerk's clamor is that the only way mail ballots can be counted is by electronic voting machines, the same ones that have been decertified and are widely distrusted by citizens. But now the count is to be done in a backroom, usually out of public view. Further, the most vocal clerks tend to be the most technologically challenged. As a result, it is common for them to simply contract with a voting machine vendor to run elections for them. Obviously these vendors, LHS in New Hampshire is a recent example, are going to do everything in their power to make the election appear flawless. Citizens are then left taking the unverifiable word of a private contractor as to the results of their election.
A second problem for county clerks in a mail ballot election is the verification of signatures that are claimed to provide protection against election fraud. While that simplistic faith is as full of holes as Swiss cheese, the clerks do have to make an effort. However, they are not handwriting experts, and citizen's signatures do vary over a wide range. Once again we see voting machine vendors rushing to the rescue with computers to do the dirty work for the embattled clerks by providing signature recognition computers.
To the best of my knowledge there has been no general call for signature recognition software and hardware in Colorado and I am not aware of any testing, certification, or standards for such machines as are being developed. As part of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, Peter Gronke has reviewed some of this equipment that he saw in June 2007. Locally, the Colorado Springs city clerk used Diebold's Vote Remote suite to verify signatures in the April 2007 city election. The Diebold system consists of Windows-based program that allows an election official to set a verification level (margin of error?) ranging from 0 to 100 -- the higher you set the level, the closer the match must be or the signature gets flagged (presumably to then be checked by a human). In a report after the election, the city clerk stated that initially the verification level was set to high (too many false negatives) and she simply turned it down until most signatures matched. I do not think any record was kept of what setting was used.
El Paso County, Colorado's largest, has long used a visual comparison of signatures based on a Votec system. There is no indication that they will, or need to change this system. Nor has legislation been required in the past, so why is legislation required now? Rumor has it that Larimer County Clerk Scott Doyle, of vote center infamy, has whispered in the ear of State Representative Don Marostica (R-Larimer County, and a land developer) that county clerks could save perhaps $90,000 if they used signature recognition equipment in 2008 and Marostica kindly obliged by introducing HB08-1128.

Summary: Authorizes county clerks and recorders to access the digitized signatures in the statewide voter registration system in order to compare an elector's signature in the system with the signature on the return envelope of a mail-in ballot or mail ballot, including by using a signature verification device.
In a statewide primary or general election or a coordinated mail ballot election, requires election judges to compare an elector's signature on the return envelope of a mail-in ballot or mail ballot with the elector's signature in the statewide voter registration system instead of the one on file in the office of the county clerk and recorder. Authorizes the designated election official to allow an election judge to use a signature verification device to compare the signatures. States that the signature on the return envelope is deemed verified if the signature verification device determines that the signatures match. Requires an election judge to compare the signatures if the signature verification device is unable to determine that the signatures match.
States that the return envelope for a mail-in ballot or mail ballot shall not be required to have a flap covering the signature or otherwise impede the use of a signature verification device.
Directs the secretary of state to adopt rules establishing procedures for using signature verification devices to process ballots.
Clarifies and makes consistent various provisions on verifying signatures on mail-in ballot and mail ballot return envelopes.
Makes conforming amendments. Deletes obsolete provisions.

Perhaps it is general, but I've noticed it particularly in Colorado where legislators pass laws first and then try and figure out if "it" will work. The predictable result is that "it" usually doesn't! That has been particularly true with rushed election legislation to dictate how and where citizens will vote using untested, uncertified, immature and corrupt computer programs and hardware operated by technology-challenged county clerks, or worse, by "trusted" voting machine vendors.
Note also that many citizens have loudly objected to their signature being exposed on the outside of mail ballot envelopes. To solve that problem the El Paso County, Colorado, clerk had a tear-off flap on the envelope that covered the voter's signature in the November 2007 election. Note that HB08-1128 specifically states that "... the return envelope for a mail-in ballot or mail ballot shall not be required to have a flap covering the signature or otherwise impede the use of a signature verification device." Thus, that protection against identity theft is to be denied citizens as well.
Conversely, this unneeded and untested legislation gives citizens no protection against election fraud and leaves county clerks or their "trusted" voting machine vendors perfectly free to turn the sensitivity to zero so that any envelope goes through the machine and is, therefore, certified to have an authentic signature.
This hastily-crafted bill also authorizes county clerks to use "... digitized signatures in the statewide voter registration system in order to compare an elector's signature in the system with the signature on the return envelope of a mail-in ballot or mail ballot..." A "minor" problem with that is the SCORE II voter registration database is not yet functional and is exhibiting many teething problems. As "security by obscurity" appears to be the method of choice with the SCORE II system it seems likely that it will be hacked at some point in the future with full access to these signatures and voting records.
Also, in El Paso County, the clerk is careful to update voter's signatures on a routine basis so that changes with time or injuries are captured. There is no such requirement, or known plans to update signature in the statewide database, nor are the sources of such signatures known.
With voter distrust of electronic voting equipment at record levels, and in the midst of an election crisis brought about by shoddy electronic voting machines, why would any election official or legislator want to introduce even more untested, mistrusted, uncertified, non-standard equipment into the 2008 election?
For those on this list who live in Colorado, you can reach the bill's sponsors, Rep. Don Marostica and Sen. Ken Gordon, by doing a Reply All to this email in order to express your opinion.
For those outside of Colorado, hopefully this newsletter will serve as a warning of dangers ahead in the 2008 election.
It would be much more useful for this bill's authors to go through the complexities of Colorado's election laws and reduce, standardize, and simplify them. But that would involve time and effort and wouldn't be very "touchy feely" from the citizen's standpoint. It appears much more acceptable for most election officials to follow the old saw about "When in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."
Charles E. Corry, Ph.D., F.G.S.A.
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Dr. Charles Corry is President of the Equal Justice Foundation.
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