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.