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Can you spare 5 minutes for democracy?

LAW PROFESSOR Seattle Post-Intelligencer  21 September 2004

The bitter wounds opened by the 2000 presidential election continue to fester four years later. But if we do not act immediately to address the dangers of electronic voting machines, the 2004 election will be far worse, with potentially devastating and irreparable consequences for democracy.

As U.S. citizens, we generally take pride in our democracy. We may not be as active in the daily monitoring of our government as we should be, but at least we can head to the voting booth every few years to "throw the bums out." What would happen, then, if we lost our democracy, if the results of elections did not correlate with our choices on Election Day?

To be sure, fraud in voting is nothing new. Stories of stuffing ballot boxes go back decades, if not centuries. What is new is the potential for fraud on a scale we have never seen the potential for electronic voting machines that do not reflect what voters want. What's even worse is the potential, by not leaving any paper trail, to erase those preferences from our collective electoral consciousness without a trace.

Electronic voting warrants concern on several levels. First, it has been plagued by flaws and mishaps. Numerous elections have been marred by machines that have jammed, failed to record votes, refused to credit votes for particular candidates and declared the losing candidate (based on hand recounts) to be the winner.

Second, reflecting an obvious conflict of interest, all the major voting machine vendors have ties to one political party. The contacts include:

An active Republican fund-raiser who promised "to help Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president" (Diebold CEO).

A member of the right-wing Council for National Policy and Christian Reconstructionist movement (Election Systems and Software (ES&S) initial funder Howard Ahmanson).

Former President Bush (recent senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, a partner of the parent company of Sequoia).

Tom Hicks (significant investor in Hart Intercivic and purchaser of the Texas Rangers from George W. Bush).

Third, the results of previous elections themselves warrant suspicion. The 2002 elections in Georgia were conducted entirely on electronic voting machines manufactured by Diebold, with employees of the company changing the software before the election and creating an Internet folder called "rob-georgia." Perhaps not surprising, a number of upsets of Democrats occurred in those elections, including that of triple-amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland (who was leading in the pre-election polls but lost 53 percent to 46 percent) and that of Gov. Roy Barnes (who was leading by 9 to 11 points but lost 51 percent to 46 percent). To name one other example, "the major Republican upset" in the 1996 election involved the election to the Senate of Chuck Hagel, who two weeks before announcing his candidacy was CEO of ES&S (then American Information Systems), the company whose machines counted 85 percent of the votes in the Nebraska election.

The 2004 election likely will be decided in swing states that are using electronic voting machines without paper trails. There is a significant likelihood that the current polls in those states are, and in fact the exit polls themselves will be, irrelevant because tampered or faulty software not voters will determine the outcome.

This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. None of us, not to mention our representatives, gains from a system in which the results of elections cannot be trusted.

If this state of affairs is disturbing, there is still time left to take democracy into our own hands by making four phone calls. Call Congress (1-800-839-5276) and tell your representative to pass HR 2239, which would require a voter-verified paper record for electronic voting machines. Second, ask your senator to support S 2437, which also requires a paper trail.

Because there may not be time to add paper trails by November, you need to make two more calls to Washington's Secretary of State Sam Reed and county election officials to demand (a) an ample supply of paper ballots (for at least 25 percent of a precinct's registered voters), (b) "stand-alone" voting machines that are not connected to modems, wireless devices or the Internet and (c) the posting of results at each precinct when the polls close.

We still can act. We still can save democracy. But it will take five minutes of your time. It will take four phone calls. I know you haven't done this before. I know you're not an "activist." But together we share this thing called democracy. We share the pride it instills in us as Americans. And each one of us is responsible for maintaining this democracy. Each one of us has to have five minutes to spare for democracy. For if we don't, who will?

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