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Building Bridges, Amending HR 550 and What I Did Over Winter Break

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Building Bridges, Amending HR 550 and What I Did Over Winter Break I went back to work when my son was entering kindergarten, but with the understanding that when he had school vacations, I would take off, too. It was wrenching enough giving up my stay-at-home-Mom status. Having gone through motherhood once already (or twice, if you count having twins as double) and seeing how fast little ones grow up, I was unwilling to make more compromises than was absolutely necessary. In the beginning, my son was still young enough to enjoy spending time with his mother. We would use the vacations to go out for lunch, and to the bowling alley, library, movie theater, water parks, or whatever else struck our fancy. I found him a charming companion and cherished our time together. It was such a breeze to care for a singleton after having twins! I reveled in the sense that I was doing something well. With the girls, I had often felt overworked, overwhelmed, and at a huge disadvantage. I was always outnumbered. Now, my incredibly cute little boy has morphed into a very tall, often mysterious teenager - albeit one who still has many charming moments. While I like to be around in case he wants to spend time with me, the truth of the matter is that he's often more interested in the car that we share. Still, I'm unwilling to give up this tradition. He's a junior in high school, and the clock is ticking. It won't be long before he, too, leaves the nest. We did manage to do a few nice things together over this winter break. We had a great early dinner at the local pancake house, continuing a family tradition that dates back to my own high school days. We traditionally await our food with many a game of hangman, and that evening was no different. Another time, he voluntarily played Scrabble, Boggle, AND a few hands of cards before heading out with his friends. That was pretty impressive, and may have to hold me for a while. One of the perks of vacation is that I can turn off that bleeping alarm clock. Although I don't necessarily actually sleep later, the freedom to consider doing so is something I consider sheer luxury. Even an extra ten minutes lying in bed is priceless, especially when I'm ensconced in my soft flannel sheets and cozy down comforter. Emma, our extremely neurotic dog, somehow intuits that I'll move when I'm good and ready, and so she waits, ever-patient, for the first indication that it's time to start the day. Over winter break, she's been rewarded with a trip to the doggie park and several outings with her pal, a frisky Malamute named Sophie. The biggest change for me is that I don't have to go to work. At all. For two weeks. It's heavenly. Don't get me wrong: I love my job. It's just that what goes on after-hours takes up so much time and energy that I have trouble juggling everything. My editing for OpEdNews, coupled with various projects and articles to be written, plus the myriad household chores that start piling up - you get the picture. What some would call my passion would be deemed compulsiveness by others. So, while I do juggle everything under ordinary circumstances, it's definitely one hundred times more relaxing (or less stressful) to have one less ball to keep in the air. I finally got the go-ahead from my chiropractor to go back to swimming. I had to take an involuntary time-out of three months in order to deal with a stubborn Achilles heel injury. The good news is that, according to Dr. Yim, the forced rest achieved 98% recovery. The unhealed 2% causes it to ache in wet weather or if I spend too much time on my feet. I can live with that. Being exiled from the pool was so difficult. I have developed a routine over the last few years that includes swimming three or four times a week. I cherish those moments in the water, where I've done some of my best thinking. The Zen of it is crucial for my mental health and, apparently, for my writing, as well. I only realized just how much it was missed upon being reunited with that part of myself which had no outlet for those past months. It's probably not an accident that my absence from the pool coincided with a literary dry spell. I've now been back in business for two full weeks, and have gone swimming eight times. I could have gone more, but my heel started to act up, so I (reluctantly) used good judgment and put the breaks on. I may be compulsive, but I'm not stupid. As you know if you read my recent piece on mindful shopping, "Crocs, Costco and The Mindful Shopper," I like to buy products that are made in America. I also like to recycle, and find the former more difficult than the latter. But I had two great experiences in preparation for going back to the pool. Although I am not extremely materialistic, I love getting everything lined up for an activity. This dates back to my days as a young schoolgirl, when I would set out my clothes and organize my school supplies on the night before the first day of school. I got a real charge out of those sharpened pencils, erasers, clean, unused spiral notebooks, and fresh reams of notebook paper. Getting a new Chandler's assignment notebook was symbolic of the annual, fresh start of a new school year, and I'd deliberate over my color choices for an inordinate amount of time. As a grown-up, I don't have that many opportunities for this type of activity but I still love buying things to help me organize, whether it's the kitchen, my study, or the house in general. So, I was excited to prepare for my return to the pool. First, there were my goggles. The strap had broken the last time I swam. Because I finally got a good pair of goggles after several years of closely resembling a raccoon with a terrible headache, I was able to buy another strap instead of tossing them into the garbage and starting again. Less waste, and less cost. Two bucks later, I was ready to go. Although I'm allowed to swim again, I'm still barred from using my fins, since they apparently aggravate my old injury. As a result, I now feel like I'm swimming in 'slow mo'. Not only do I have to work back up to whatever shape I was in, but I have to do it unassisted. My hand paddles were also falling apart - one pair was pilling and the other was missing a strap. The last time I was at the shop, my options were all made in China so I put off replacing them. But this time, there was a pair of Tyr orange Catalyst Brites that were made in America. I couldn't believe it! I was so excited. The fact that they are extremely comfortable is the icing on the cake. What a productive visit. While I was recuperating, the Y was remodeling the Ladies' Locker Room. It was reopened the day after New Years, and it looks wonderful, with fresh new carpet, counters with mirrors, comfortable chairs, hairdryers, and new, wider lockers. In a word - fabulous! Not only did I get to be reunited with all my Y friends, but I was treated to deluxe accommodations at the same time. It did a lot for my spirits. And then, there was the actual swimming experience, which I can't adequately describe. Runners find the "zone" when they hit their stride, and I think swimming is like that, as well. Of course, my focus is inadvertently aided by the fact that wearing two bathing caps impairs my hearing, and my goggles fog up to the extent that I can't even find the clock, let alone try to guess what time it is. I just get in there, swim, and commune with the inner me. It makes me feel so grounded. I like feeling like a jock, a quality my life has sorely lacked up until the last few years. (At the end of this article, I offer a bonus: a great swimming tip picked up this week at the pool.) What else did I do over my vacation? I went to a bunch of movies, socialized, celebrated an anniversary - our 32nd. I know, I know, I look much younger. But that goes without saying...I also found time for reading. I just finished Triangle, about the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that took scores of lives (mostly women, mostly Jewish) and changed the course of workplace safety and progressive politics. As I read the book, I saw many parallels between then and now in terms of the push for reform. Because I grew up in the '60s and the '70s, I've never been much of a joiner. I've looked for my own path and I've distrusted politics and politicians on the whole, with a few very notable exceptions. But I'm now realizing that in the same way you need judges and lawyers to interpret the law, you need politicians to craft reform. Just having good intentions is not enough. This was brought home to me in terms of the proposals for election reform that are now being considered. While it might be my strong preference to throw out all electronic voting machines and go back to something that the voter can see and take part in - namely hand counted paper ballots - it may not be realistic, or even feasible, to get there in one fell swoop. Too many billions of tax dollars, and too many politicians' and election officials' reputations, are at stake to get them to easily admit that a terrible mistake was made and that we need to start all over. Where does that leave us? A group of those interested in meaningful election reform has built a workable framework, using Rep. Rush Holt's HR 550 as the basis for change. After much study and discussion, a proposal has been devised that centers on ways to amend the bill to deal with the problems and issues uncovered since its crafting in 2004. So many reports since then - the GAO report of September 2005, the Black Box Voting/Harri Hursti hack in Leon County, Florida in December 2005, the Carter-Baker Commission, the SAIC Report, the Brennan Center Report, the Princeton Center Report, the new NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) recommendations - in fact, every single independent study has given the electronic voting machines a failing grade. What happened in Florida's 13th Congressional District in November is a case study for what's wrong with electronic voting. While one candidate was declared the victor on the basis of less than 400 votes, there were also more than 18,000 under-votes, something that the EVM (electronic voting machine) vendors touted as impossible on their machines. The outcome of that race is still in doubt. Now, it turns out that one of the three "independent" labs for certifying the machines has been barred from doing so since the summer, only the EAC (Election Assistance Commission) never let anyone know. What that means is that elections have been conducted using machines that were incorrectly or improperly certified. The ramifications of this are huge and far-reaching. And so, a group of us have adopted the strategy of using HR 550 as the starting point for purely pragmatic reasons. The bill already has over 200 co-sponsors in the House. It seems quite likely that something will pass this session in response to the glaring problems that cropped up in November 2006, as well as in past elections. And while Holt's bill is far from ideal, Sen. Clinton's bill is far worse. Congress is made up of a bunch of people who closely resemble their constituents in that they understand very little about computers and electronic voting. They look for guidance to their own experts and jump on the bandwagon without necessarily understanding all or any of the complexities and nuances. Elections are the cornerstones of our democracy. Without fair elections, democracy is nothing more than a sham. And yet, the question of how exactly to bring about the most fair, accurate, safe, and transparent elections is extremely complex, not given to sound bytes or oversimplification. We need to somehow impress upon our elected representatives that this topic needs thorough study, and that just passing a bill because there is a public will for election reform is not the answer. Looking at America in the aftermath of HAVA (the Help America Vote Act of 2002) is proof enough of that. HAVA has been the electoral equivalent of Hurricane Katrina, and its effects will reverberate throughout the country for years to come. Many well-intentioned individuals supported this legislation, which has, ironically, made fair elections even more remote. One problem with taking a stand on this or any other issue is that you open yourself up to getting attacked from all sides. What I'm respectfully suggesting is that people realize that there are different strategies for achieving the same thing, and that voting rights activists have a lot more in common than it might sometimes seem. We are all dedicated to our country's well-being. We need to acknowledge that. And then, as far as I'm concerned, the more discussion and debate, the better. People need to start studying the ins and outs of our electoral system. This is too important to leave to so-called experts to decide what's best for us. Unfortunately, whenever there's been a choice between voting security and the convenience of the pollworkers and election judges, democracy has taken a backseat. And while it is certainly not my intention to complicate the lives of our overworked election officials, it is their job to serve us, the tax-paying public, We the People. Putting their convenience ahead of promoting democracy is just plain wrong! We need citizen involvement, transparency and freedom to access voting records. (If you doubt the importance of examining the public records, you need only look to Alaska, whose citizens had to fight for two years to have access to the 2004 votes. They were stonewalled at every turn and, at various points, Diebold claimed that the votes were proprietary, belonging to them alone, and the state officials claimed that releasing the voting material would be a threat to national security. When it was finally released, it turns out that, some time in 2006, it was not only accessed but altered, as well.) To put it in the simplest of terms: the more layers that come between the voter and his vote, the less sure we can be that those votes are being recorded accurately and securely. And the more room there is for undetected malfunctions and malicious manipulation of the voting apparatus. It's already been proven that a virus introduced into the system can alter and align all the physical records of the voting machine to appear correct while recording something quite contrary to the voters' wishes. The virus then self-destructs, leaving no trace behind beyond the incorrect, fraudulent records. Here is the Princeton Center Report nine-minute video. Judge for yourself if we are making a big deal out of nothing: click here So, where does that leave us? How does a voter contend with an invisible foe? It's like fighting the wind. How do we contest the results or prove that fraud has not taken place? Most important, why should the onus be on the voter to prove fraud, rather than on the vendors to prove that their system prevents fraud? What about "consumer protection?. If someone finds this a logical arrangement, I wish you'd explain it to me. This approach to voting is like an electoral Rubik cube. I turn it around and around and gaze at it from all sides and still can't make any sense of it. We've invested almost four billion tax dollars on a system that is so inherently flawed that computer experts find the quality of its component parts quite laughable. It would be laughable if the foundations of our democracy and our elections weren't imperiled by it. For those of us who have even the most basic understanding of this, it's an unending nightmare. Like FEMA, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, the Clean Skies Act, fighting over in Iraq to bring them democracy and make ourselves safer from terrorists, and many other governmental programs and policies, HAVA achieves precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to. The ostensible purpose of this legislation was to prevent a recurrence of Florida 2000. You can see for yourself how well that worked. There are those who quip that HAVA should be more accurately called "Leave No Electronic Voting Machine Vendor Behind". Indeed, the vendors seem to be the only clear winners in this mess. Let's get back to HR 550. It's important to build bridges rather than walls, to paraphrase Bev Harris. The same is true regarding the Holt people. We are saying "We can find ways to work with you, if you can amend the bill to take care of these vital concerns. The end result will be a better bill that will more effectively deliver meaningful election reform." Diplomacy and delicacy have their place. Why not try the gentle approach? Remember "you catch more bees with honey than vinegar." Why not use that as a jumping off point? If we get nowhere, we can always explore other tactics. But, why would we ever assume that legislators who consider themselves attacked by us would even be willing to have a free-ranging discussion on the issues? It simply doesn't make sense. And they have so much to gain by having a bunch of loudmouth reformers on their side. In the meantime, the public must become informed and vocal on this in order to make sure that there is action in a timely fashion. We must balance investigation, debate and action. Otherwise, you can rest assured that 2008 will be run under the same rules as 2006, 2004, and 2002. Let's be clear about this; that would not be to our advantage. How many more deeply flawed elections do you think we can afford? How much more can voter confidence be allowed to slip? What are you willing to do, and how much time are you willing to devote to ensure that true election reform becomes a front-burner issue? I invite you to get started by signing the "Request by Voters" that will be sent to our representatives in Washington and which can be found here: Then, pass it around to your network. There really isn't a moment to lose. The 2008 Presidential election is not that far off. I spent a lot of time over my winter break pondering these weighty matters. I balanced this heavy cerebral activity with recharging my batteries, getting back into an exercise routine, reconnecting with friends and family, and concentrating on my OpEdNews work. It's Sunday already and I'll have to set my alarm tonight so that I am able to get up on time in the morning. It was fun while it lasted. Real life begins again tomorrow. *** BONUS: FREE SWIMMING TIP. How to deal with the uncomfortable sensation of water going up your nose. This is a new problem for me since I was forced to change my swim regimen. The swim coach saw me struggling and suggested that if I hummed (or blew bubbles) on the exhale, I would no longer have this problem. I tried it and it worked - either way. Thanks, Mary!
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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