Voting Machine Industry Does It For Love

Challenging the market power of one voting machine maker

By Sean Flaherty

I am co-chairman of Iowans for Voting Integrity, a nonpartisan citizen group that works for voting systems worthy of the public trust. We have worked for six years for two reforms that both we and many of the world’s leading computer technologists consider essential to fair elections:

  • First, we believe that all computer voting systems must provide a reliable paper record of every ballot cast.
  • Second, we believe that following every election, election officials should routinely conduct a manual tally of a sample of cast ballots to check against electronic tallies.

This column revisits an issue well-known both to the small community of advocates and technology experts who work on electronic voting issues and to an untold number of conspiracy theorists around the nation, but largely unknown outside those communities. This issue is the centralized marked power of the nation’s leading vendor of election equipment and services, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), and the opacity of ES&S’s ownership.

I’d like to share some highly judicious and disturbing comments about ES&S that I heard June 7 at a reading at Prairie Lights by University of Iowa computer scientist Douglas Jones.

Along with his co-author Barbara Simons, Jones recently published an important book, Broken Ballots.”(Note: Simons serves on the board of my former employer, Verified Voting, but I have no financial interest in the book’s sales).

The reading was livestreamed on the Internet, and and audio archive should be available soon.

During Q and A after the reading, I asked Jones what we know these days about the ownership of ES&S, whose equipment counts probably more than two thirds of the nation’s ballots (and also provides ongoing service to an undoubtedly large but untold number of jurisdictions around the country).

Jones, in my view, hit the question out of the ballpark. He said that an activist named Bev Harris looked into the subject years ago and found a number of reciprocal partnerships, but nothing definitive. He said that some have tried to tie ES&S to former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, not always successfully. He said that the voting machine industry is a very low-profit business, and those in the business do what they do for love, not money.

The question, however, what do they love? Is it democracy?

Jones noted wryly that ES&S headquarters in Omaha is on a street called John Galt Boulevard, which to readers of Ayn Rand’s novels implies conservative politics.

Some years ago, the wonkier element of what we might call the “e-voting movement” made a sort of collective decision not to raise careful questions about ES&S and its power in the election services market. Too many conspiracy theories made it a complicated task, and there was also a risk of being perceived as partisan.

All in all, though, I believe that this decision was a serious, and perhaps even tragic, mistake.

In 2004, a large portion of America’s electorate was galvanized by Diebold CEO Wally O’Dell’s letter saying that he was committed to delivering Ohio’s electoral votes for then-President Bush. As e-voting worries go, this was actually a rather jokey one: only a few counties in Ohio back then used Diebold machines.

But the O’Dell letter concentrated the minds of many citizens and policymakers, and I believe laid the groundwork for useful reforms in the next several years.

Now the e-voting movement is stalled, with only half the states performing any kind of hand-count sample, and with a shocking 25 percent of the electorate still forced to depend upon unverifiable paperless voting machines.

And concern about the concentrated market power of ES&S is not a joke.


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4 Responses to Voting Machine Industry Does It For Love

  1. Bev Harris says:

    Doug Jones did not, unfortunately, “hit the ball out of the park” with his answer if he said “some have tried to link ES&S to Chuck Hagel, not always successfully.”

    Chuck Hagel was chairman of the Board of ES&S and also served as its CEO; note that ES&S was a name change of AIS, which was the name of the voting machine company while Hagel was involved. AIS (American Information Systems) changed to the name ES&S (Election Systems & Software) in 1997. Hagel was Chairman of the Board of AIS from 1992-1995 and CEO in 1994. I hardly think that being CEO and Chairman of the Board, clearly provable on corporate documents, serves as “not successfully” being linked to a company.


  2. Matt Denner says:

    Love that headline about “the love.” Thanks for the laugh.


  3. From WI says:

    From Wisconsin we are not amused. Another company that shares the same parent company as Diebold supplied many of the machines used in the Scott Walker recall election. This generous company, Command Central, “replaced” many of our old machines for FREE. What a business model!
    See Wisconsin Recall Election Integrity In Doubt. Suspicious ‘Free’ Upgrades From Paper To Electronic Voting Booths Occurring Statewide:


  4. Sally Peck says:

    Considering the vigor with which the new Republican Secretaries of State, including our own Matt Schultz, have tried to suppress voting with phoney claims of fraud, the possiblility of not having machines properly count the vote is one which should concern all Iowans and really all citizens where there is a Republican Secretary of State and electronic voting machines.

    An example of a so-called “glitch” was when it was discovered that an entire community (West Branch, Iowa) had been left off the voting rolls. What else is “out there” ?


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