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Lifting the Curtain on E-Voting

By Mark Lewellen-Biddle and Danielle Taylor

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana, February 26, 2004 It happened in 2000. It could happen in 2004. When it comes to flawed election procedures, why does the media wait to the last second to tell the tale?

This year, tens of millions of American voters are projected to use e-voting systems to cast their vote for president. Many of these machines will get their first test on March 2, Super Tuesday, when voters head to the polls in ten states. If more counties proceed with installing these new machines, sidestepping any legal challenges along the way, the repercussions for American democracy could be as far-reaching as any hanging chad.

Election Data Systems, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that specializes in analysis of election results, estimates that 50 million Americans will use electronic ballots when they vote for a president on November 2. Judging from mainstream media's ongoing snub of this important story, few voters will learn about the systems' inherent problems before they're face to face with the new machines on Election Day.

States that plan or have already implemented the heaviest switchover to e-voting machines include California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Voters in California, Georgia and Ohio will use these systems for the first time during the Super Tuesday vote. Most are critical electoral battleground states that promise to host some of the most vitriolic campaigns of the post-nomination season.

Watching the Watchdogs

"Journalists are the watchdogs of democracy," said Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute. McBride is confident that as the 2004 presidential election approaches media coverage related to e-voting will increase.

But since election reporting began last fall, network news coverage of the switch has been little more than a blip. According to data compiled for Media for Democracy by monitoring firm Media Tenor, between October 2003 and February 2004, ABC, NBC and CBS nightly news programs broadcast only four stories on e-voting machines. Half of the four reports were compiled by CBS. NBC opted for a story that filtered the issue through that of the California recall vote. A search for e-voting news stories on CNN.com and FoxNews.com yields an even smaller assortment: a total of three reports between September 2003 and February 20, 2004, all on CNN.

Is this just more evidence of network news' obsession with campaign spectacle and "horse race" over voter issues and substance? Maybe, but the issues here could have particularly far-reaching consequences.

The push to shift the American electoral process from paper to PCs began shortly after the Florida fiasco that stalled the ion of a president for several weeks following the November 2000 vote. With little substantial debate, in October 2002 President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, a $3.9 billion program to help all 50 states purchase electronic voting machines and related software in time for the first federal election scheduled after January 1, 2006.

Television's hold on news consumers gives the networks' dismissal of this story a particularly virulent spin. According to a recent survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, the Big Three of television news remain the medium of choice for 35 percent of news-seeking Americans; while cable TV commands an even bigger share, at 38 percent.

Instead, concerned voters have only two options for coverage of the myriad issues that surround electronic voting machines: newspapers and the Web, media that account for 31 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of Americans' preferred sources for news.

Picking up Some of the News Slack

This trend provides the lone sliver of good news in the story of mainstream broadcast media's failure to cover e-voting. Though print media's ability to lure fresh readers remains at an all-time low, the Internet has already demonstrated its power over the next generation of US news consumers . . . and voters. According to the Pew survey, 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now get their campaign news from online sources.

An overview published in the online news magazine Salon provided one striking contrast between the abilities of the Web and TV to fulfill the media's public service mission. With the help of technical expert Jim March, Salon contributor Farhad Manjoo demonstrated how a moderately knowledgeable techie could hack into Diebold machines and tamper with election results. "If you've got a copy of Access and can get physical access to the county machine or, some activists say, if you discover the county's number and call into the machine over a phone line the vote is yours to steal," Manjoo wrote.

While traditional broadcast media have taken a pass on such revealing coverage of e-voting problems, other non-traditional news sources including weblogs, Internet 'zines and online news groups have been abuzz with these concerns about the machines shortcomings.

Though such publications only command two percent of the news public's attention, their penetrating glance at the ramifications of e-voting should serve as a model for network news outlets who find it a challenge to produce a small handful of reports in a six-month period.

A Glitch-Riddled Record

Yet while Web and newspaper e-voting coverage has not been insignificant, it has largely failed to consider electronic voting as a threat to democracy, given the already checkered history of the new machines which includes reports of political favoritism by the executives at Diebold Election Systems and Election Systems & Software, the two primary manufacturers of these machines, and several independent technical tests that revealed serious flaws to machine software.

Granted, civics rarely ranks as a headline-grabbing topic. But this is a story whose legs are growing longer by the minute. Handing over control of America's electoral system to a handful of corporations constitutes the privatization of America's most public endeavor.

The four largest manufacturers of voting machines and related software all have close ties with America's defense industries, creating potential conflicts of interest. The manufacturers are also associated with the Election Systems Task Force a body comprised of defense contractors and procurement agencies such as Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman and Electronic Data Systems, Corp. which has hired the services of the Information Technology Association of America, a powerful lobbying firm that, in a February edition of USA Today, dismissed e-voting security concerns as "based on conjecture rather than fact."

Even so, the Pentagon, earlier this month decided that security concerns warrant cancellation of an Internet voting project that would have allowed U.S. personnel based overseas to vote online.

Questionable practices have already been brought to light for the US's second-largest manufacturer of e-voting machines, but it wasn't a journalist who made the call. Beverly Harris was a publicist who decided to do her own investigation of e-voting machines in 2002 and soon found that Diebold Corporation, a major GOP donor, had failed to meet voting security standards.

Memos leaked from Diebold indicated that executives and staff were fully cognizant of flaws in their software, gaping security holes, and the installation of uncertified software in previously "certified" machines.

This surely gives the public, not to mention members of Congress, reason to question the blanket assurances of manufacturers regarding the integrity of their systems. The continuing critiques of the e-voting technology have already sparked a wide-ranging public debate. Oregon refuses to allow electronic voting and a number of states, including California, New Hampshire, Maine and Nevada are now investigating paper trails. When Internet voting was proposed last year, seven of the nine presidential candidates challenged the notion, citing security issues as the problem. But still, television remains silent.

Lifting the Curtain on e-Voting

Substantial debate on e-voting's effects on the democratic process is still required, and the broadcast media, in keeping with their Federal Communications Commission license obligations, has a duty to provide it.

Without adequate news coverage of these issues, America cannot in good faith rush to embrace e-voting technology as the panacea for an ailing electoral process. As Anthony Stevens, Assistant Secretary of State for New Hampshire recently commented in The Detroit News, "the cost of restoring legitimacy is far greater than the cost of maintaining it."

This article is one in Media for Democracy's ongoing series of investigative reports on mainstream media's coverage of the 2004 presidential elections. For more information on joining MediaChannel's citizens-powered initiative, visit Media for Democracy 2004.

© MediaChannel.org, 2004. All rights reserved.

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