Present facts on voting machines
Published on: 08/25/04
Much of the controversy over electronic voting has turned on whether touch-screen machines such as those used in Georgia and elsewhere should be required to produce a verifiable "paper trail" for each ballot cast. While that issue may never be settled to everyone's satisfaction, other worrisome questions about the process for assessing the reliability of the machines must be resolved.
Only a handful of companies manufacture the touch-screen devices and the proprietary software that runs them. What's stupefying is that three private firms responsible for ensuring that the machines function properly are being paid by those same manufacturers — a potential conflict of interest that's simply too glaring to ignore.
And because the relationship between the manufacturers and the subcontractors they've hired to test the machines is essentially a private transaction (although American taxpayers are ultimately footing the bill) there are no substantial provisions for independent government oversight. Said a spokesman for Wyle Laboratories, a California-based testing company: "Our work on election machines is off-limits . . . We just don't discuss it."
That's a kindly way of saying it's none of your business. It is, of course, and should also be the first order of business for the Federal Election Commission.
But the FEC years ago delegated the important task of ing independent testing firms to the National Association of State Election Directors. NASED's Web site explains that the trio of firms it picked "had neither the staff nor the time" to explain the details of this cozy arrangement with equipment manufacturers to the public or the media. Inquiries about certification standards and procedures were directed instead to The Election Center, a Houston-based nonprofit group. But the organization has taken to referring questions to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a congressionally chartered agency which should have all the answers, but . . .
The disturbing picture that emerges from this bureaucratic runaround is that no single government entity is fully accountable. That leaves voters with little choice but to cross their fingers and ponder the imponderables: If there are bugs in the machinery or the software that could influence election results, will the testing companies tell the manufacturers who are paying them? Will the manufacturers then alert local election officials in a timely fashion? And if so, what, if anything, could be done to fix the problems?
Privatizing government functions makes sense in some instances. But voting is not like picking up the trash or running the county dog pound. America rightly prides itself as the world's oldest and most powerful democracy. It's disgraceful that the most important activity its citizens perform — indeed, their birthright — is being handled so carelessly.