Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I'll Take Some Of What They're Having

Some months ago, I recall someone (whose chosen blog handle eludes me at the moment) making this exasperated statement in a comment thread on a blog discussing some of the recent voting fiascos in our national and local elections:

If Iraq is having such a tough time writing a constitution, why don't we just give them ours. We're not using it.
The humor is obviously on the hyperbolic side of things, but the unfortunate and shameful reality is that there is a grain of truth behind it. In particular, the so-called greatest democracy in the world, the nation that is supposedly blazing a messianic trail of freedom through the lands of the disenfranchised, has a pretty dismal track record in terms of guaranteeing fairness and representation in many of its most important elections. The worst part is, that the problems could be so easily remedied and there are really very little in the way of good faith arguments in opposition to most of the proposed changes.

Getting Hitched - Again

My love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens is something even I can't explain in full, and am sometimes loathe to admit. The man is capable of conjuring lexical imagery that is adroitly witty in sound and deftly acerbic in fury, but as of late increasingly signifying nothing. While my affections for him vacillate like a young lover plucking petals from a rose, based on his
latest column in Vanity Fair I have gone from "I love him not," to "I love him" - but such matters of the heart are fleeting when dealing with Hitch.

Nevertheless, the devil gets his due for addressing some issues that have largely gone uncovered in the mainstream media for no good reason really: this country's dysfunctional electoral system. The two most pressing problems in this regard are the unverifiable, non-paper trail producing electronic voting machines, and the partisan slant of officials charged with overseeing elections (which in turn are ever more frequently employing said machines). Let's put it this way, no well intentioned democracy promoter worth her salt would even consider exporting these anomalies to either of our projects in Iraq or Afghanistan. So why is it that Iraq and Afghanistan get preferential treatment? Can't we do better?

This story has been somewhat lost in the whirl of the harried waltz performed by the conspiracy theorists and their vocal detractors eager to reciprocate in shrillness. But this extemporaneously choreographed diversion has obscured issues that deserve attention regardless of whether or not there have been earth shattering dirty tricks. To his credit, Hitchens looks past this false choice and calmly focuses on the troubling irregularities that plagued the great swing state of Ohio in November (note: if Ohio had gone for Kerry, he would be president today). And the record unearthed is an ugly one.

Deus Ex Machina?

Hitchens reminds the reader of some pretty widely disclosed, yet unsettling, facts about some of the nation's machine manufacturers.

Diebold, which manufactures paper-free, touch-screen voting machines, likewise has its corporate headquarters in Ohio. Its chairman, president, and C.E.O., Walden O’Dell, is a prominent Bush supporter and fund-raiser who proclaimed in 2003 that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." (See "Hack the Vote," by Michael Shnayerson, Vanity Fair, April 2004.) Diebold, together with its competitor, E.S.&S., counts more than half the votes cast in the United States. This not very acute competition is perhaps made still less acute by the fact that a vice president of E.S.&S. and a Diebold director of strategic services are brothers.
In itself, as Hitchens points out more than once, this does not mean that the vote was rigged, nor does he make the case that the executives of companies involved in producing such apparatuses can't have political opinions or leanings. But the performance of these machines in tightly contested swing states such as Florida and Ohio leaves much to be desired - and the outward appearances are not made any prettier by such overt political affiliations. Here is a partial chronicle of the events cited by Hitchens - itself not even a comprehensive list of such irregularities.

In Montgomery County, two precincts recorded a combined undervote of almost 6,000. This is to say that that many people waited to vote but, when their turn came, had no opinion on who should be the president, voting only for lesser offices. In these two precincts alone, that number represents an undervote of 25 percent, in a county where undervoting averages out at just 2 percent. Democratic precincts had 75 percent more under- votes than Republican ones.

In Precinct lB of Gahanna, in Franklin County, a computerized voting machine recorded a total of 4,258 votes for Bush and 260 votes for Kerry. In that precinct, however, there are only 800 registered voters, of whom 638 showed up. Once the "glitch" had been identified, the president had to be content with 3,893 fewer votes than the computer had awarded him.

In Miami County, a Saddam Hussein-type turnout was recorded in the Concord Southwest and Concord South precincts, which boasted 98.5 percent and 94.27 percent turnouts, respectively, both of them registering overwhelming majorities for Bush. Miami County also managed to report 19,000 additional votes for Bush after 100 percent of the precincts had reported on Election Day.

In Mahoning County, Washington Post reporters found that many people had been victims of "vote hopping," which is to say that voting machines highlighted a choice of one candidate after the voter had recorded a preference for another. Some specialists in election software diagnose this as a "calibration issue."
Still, this is not smoking gun evidence that the election was stolen, just a series of events that create doubt and uncertainty - in ethical parlance, the appearance of impropriety. It doesn't take a conspiracy theory to realize that this is a crisis of credibility worthy of addressing though. The law, the business community, and society in general takes great pains to avoid the appearance of impropriety even and especially where no wrong-doing has occurred. Something as vital as voting in America should not be the exception to this well-reasoned rule.

Inefficiency and incompetence could also explain the other oddities of the Ohio process—from machines that redirected votes from one column to the other to machines that recorded amazing tallies for unknown fringe candidates, to machines that apparently showed that voters who waited for a long time still somehow failed to register a vote at the top of the ticket for any candidate for the presidency of these United States.

However, for any of that last category of anomaly to be explained, one would need either a voter-verified paper trail of ballots that could be tested against the performance of the machines or a court order that would allow inspection of the machines themselves. The first of these does not exist, and the second has not yet been granted....

The Federal Election Commission, which has been a risible body for far too long, ought to make Ohio its business. The Diebold company, which also manufactures A.T.M.s, should not receive another dime until it can produce a voting system that is similarly reliable. And Americans should cease to be treated like serfs or extras when they present themselves to exercise their franchise.
To me, this is the heart of the matter. The glaring question is why are there no paper trails? Why is America incapable of demanding such accountability from these manufacturers? It is a lamentable shame that we cannot offer definitive refutations to those that claim that this election was stolen, and the reason is simple: there is no trail of paper to count or point to. The reason for the lack of paper confounds me. In fact, I have never heard an acceptable explanation for this. And why isn't this a bi-partisan issue? Why is it that only Democrats are concerned by this? Are Republicans content with the system we have, and if so why? Can anyone give me a straight answer on this? I beseech any and all readers out there, especially those on the right side of the spectrum, to put forth a good faith argument about why we as a country do not need to have a paper trail for voting. Please enlighten me, because I can't see it for the life of me.

The only thing I've heard to date is that it would require money to install such paper producing machinations, but really, is money such an issue? If Iraqi and Afghani democracy is worth half a trillion dollars, what is ours worth? Further, considering the profligate habits of Congress and the President, I remain incredulous. A closer look at the patterns of the mishaps creates an ever more unseemly portrait.

Machines are fallible and so are humans, and shit happens, to be sure, and no doubt many Ohio voters were able to record their choices promptly and without grotesque anomalies. But what strikes my eye is this: in practically every case where lines were too long or machines too few the foul-up was in a Democratic county or precinct, and in practically every case where machines produced impossible or improbable outcomes it was the challenger who suffered and the actual or potential Democratic voters who were shortchanged, discouraged, or held up to ridicule as chronic undervoters or as sudden converts to fringe-party losers....

I have been reviewing books on history and politics all my life, making notes in the margin when I come across a wrong date, or any other factual blunder, or a missing point in the evidence. No book is ever free from this. But if all the mistakes and omissions occur in such a way as to be consistent, to support or attack only one position, then you give the author a lousy review.
I'd hate to think that this trend is somehow the cause of so much silence from my Republican brethren, but it sure doesn't look good. Please prove me wrong. Show me that you think democracy in America is at least as important as in Iraq. Or, if you could, explain to me why this isn't a problem. My breath is baited.

When The Fox Guards The Hen House

Hitchens touches on the other dirty little secret about America's electoral system that has been allowed to persist through the years: that the officials in charge of administering elections are actually partisan figures themselves, not independent election observers.

There are some other, more random factors to be noted. The Ohio secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, was a state co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign at the same time as he was discharging his responsibilities for an aboveboard election in his home state.
Blackwell's seemingly conflicting roles is reminiscent of Katherine Harris' multiple hat wearing in Florida 2000. Yet despite the counterintuitive concept of placing partisans in charge of being impartial, no changes have been proposed. It is naive to think that these officials cannot manipulate the system to favor their candidate. In pursuit of this, Hitchens tells the story of Gambier, Ohio, a predominately pro-Kerry town in Ohio on election day 2004.

The polls opened at 6:30 AM. There were only two voting machines (push-button direct-recording electronic systems) for the entire town of 2,200 (with students). The mayor, Kirk Emmert, had called the Board of Elections 10 days earlier, saying that the number of registered voters would require more than that. (He knew, as did many others, that hundreds of students had asked to register in Ohio because it was a critical "swing" state.) The mayor’s request was denied. Indeed, instead of there being extra capacity on Election Day, one of the only two machines chose to break down before lunchtime.
The scene in Gambier was a microcosm of events that occurred across Ohio - with a remarkable coincidence of circumstances.

Reporters and eyewitnesses told of voters who had given up after humiliating or frustrating waits, and who often cited the unwillingness of their employers to accept voting as an excuse for lateness or absence. In some way or another, these bottlenecks had a tendency to occur in working-class and, shall we just say, nonwhite precincts. So did many disputes about "provisional" ballots, the sort that are handed out when a voter can prove his or her identity but not his or her registration at that polling place.
Yet another troublesome trend, and very little bipartisan consensus on solutions or reforms. The history of electoral manipulation is one that finds villains of all political persuasions, and I do not mean to suggest that only Republicans are capable of such chicanery. But I do note, with muted alarm, that Republicans seem content with the system as is, despite the structural and functional flaws. If Bush's rhetoric is inspiring democratic movements across the Middle East, maybe we as a nation can try to seize the momentum as echoed back to us. I don't think it beyond the pale of possibilities that we as a nation can reach some sort of bipartisan agreement to increase the transparency, fairness, accountability, and non-partisanship in the way our own elections are carried out. At the very least, we can demand that our voting machines produce a receipt of comparable quality as our ATMs. Our credibility depends on it, and at this time, we are trying to accomplish Herculean feats on the back of that very credibility and example. As such, we can do better.

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