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The Dan Rather Voting Machine Special, A Recipe for Election Disaster, and Serious Food for Thought

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I’m continually amazed by the connections between seemingly unrelated threads in my life. I’ve already mentioned various times that I love to read audio books to replace the bad-news-all-the-time radio. Right now, I’m reading Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, the memoir of Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic. It’s a lot of fun reading about someone whose life is so different from my own and about scads of meals that I couldn’t or wouldn’t ever eat. It’s hard to think of a topic more removed from the state of our elections. And yet, both yesterday and today, her book touched on topics that seemed uncannily relevant.

For instance, Reichl shared her secret for perfect roast chicken. First, she stressed the key to good cooking: use quality ingredients. Many a recipe has achieved a depressing degree of mediocrity when the substitution of a few key ingredients would have made all the difference. There are several factors that lift a good cook to greatness, in my humble opinion. The most critical, but underrated, are pride and love. My daughter, Ariella, and my dear friend, Judy, are among the best cooks I know. They both expend a lot of time and energy on meal composition, making sure that various elements harmonize well and are artfully presented. Eating a meal that either of them prepares is truly a sensory experience. While I get many compliments on my own cooking from loyal family members, the difference is palpable. I’ve been doing it for so many years that the thrill is gone. I’m often in a big hurry with just too many other things to do, so I often find myself just going through the motions. Many a time, I have forgotten something in the oven or either skipped an important ingredient or a whole dish altogether because I got distracted. A special thanks is in order for whoever invented the timer. It has prevented many a kitchen catastrophe under this particular roof.

I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with the state of our elections. Well, there is a connection – quality and pride, or in this case, their polar opposite. In every report ever done on the electronic voting machine systems used across the country, the unifying theme is shoddy construction, sophomoric programming, and inadequate or non-existent security. Add to that the ITAs – the (not so) Independent Testing Authorities – that are actually paid by, and answerable only to, the vendors. There you have what I deem a recipe for disaster.

Let’s check out the second part of Dan Rather’s special report, “The trouble with touch screens,” which aired last week. http://www.hd.net/drr227.html Rather looked into the actual paper ballots that were sent in 2000 to Palm Beach County, Florida. Virtually everyone recalls with a collective wince those ubiquitous photographs of election officials squinting and peering at hanging, pregnant, and otherwise problematic chads. People who had never heard of a chad beforehand have that image etched in their minds. I know I do. The investigation that Rather launched turned up some interesting information on how those troubled ballots ended up, coincidentally enough, in a county that determined the 2000 election. Lest you think that I’m exaggerating, please cast your mind back to that election, which was decided by a margin of 527 votes. Palm Beach County, somehow, had more than10,000 under votes – voters who ostensibly came to the polls and voted, but abstained from the contentious presidential race. Statewide, there were 50,000 over votes and at least 7,000 ballots that had three or more presidential candidates marked. Please note: not two candidates for the same race, but three or four. Is this claim even credible?

We now turn to Exeter, California, and the mill that turned out hundreds of millions of punch-card ballots over a period of 30 years for Sequoia Voting Systems. In an interview with seven former Sequoia employees, we find a possible answer for what suddenly turned the country away from punch-card voting towards computerized voting machines. The employees, many of whom had worked for Sequoia for 20 or even 30 years, all shared pride in the quality of their work. In fact, what they produced was referred to by Sequoia as a “no-defect product.” The paper was high quality, as were the tools and inspection process.

In the months leading up to the 2000 election, however, this all began to change. Management suddenly stopped using James River and International Paper, despite the fact that these two suppliers had a superb track record that stretched back decades. Sequoia inexplicably switched to Boise Cascade – a company that lacked experience in the voting field – and the quality of the paper took a nosedive.

As one of the former employees put it, “The paper is a large factor in the quality of the ballot. It’s the flour for the bread; I mean, you can’t make good bread without good flour. If you don’t have good paper, you won’t make good ballots.”

Quality control was relaxed, and management stopped listening to employees’ comments and complaints. The drop in quality was quite noticeable and clearly rankled, and the workers’ sense of pride was severely compromised. Said one, “Everybody’s opinion was that this 2000 election was going to be our demise.”

Let’s go to the transcript of the Rather special.

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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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