02:00 AM Nov. 14, 2003 PT
They might seem an unlikely duo a coiffed congressman from New Jersey and a pasty-skinned garage-band front man from Alaska but the two are on a mission to protect voter rights and the integrity of U.S. elections.
The congressman, Rush Holt, introduced a bill to the House of Representatives last May calling for electronic voting machines to offer paper receipts so voters can verify their ballots.
The musician, Randall Scott, lead singer of the band Railer, is touring the country with band mates to promote the group's first album, Frame of Mind. But the band also is stumping for the House bill.
Packed into a Dodge van, the five band mates, ranging in age from 21 to 27, set out from Portland, Oregon, last month and have been crisscrossing the country from Minneapolis to San Francisco on their New National Anthem tour. At each gig they distribute leaflets with information about the Holt bill and the electronic voting industry.
"We're a new-wave band that promotes technology, but in this instance technology has been a letdown," said Scott, a consultant for a software company by day, who calls himself a technology geek at heart.
He's referring to a plethora of news stories about miscalculated votes and malfunctioning machines that have appeared in the press, as well as research reports from computer scientists and software auditors (PDF) that indicate electronic voting machines are unreliable.
One system in particular, made by Diebold Election Systems, was found to have more than 300 flaws, a number of them serious security issues that would allow someone to manipulate votes and rig an election. A spokesman for Diebold put a creative spin on the facts when he told an Ohio reporter this month that the company had received a "glowing" report.
"I started doing my own research out of curiosity and found a lot of facts that were quite scary," said Scott.
The band doesn't consider itself political. But Scott said, "I thought, if we're hitting the road, this is something I'd like to make people aware of. Instead of just raising your fist in frustration, there's actually an action that we could take to get results."
Scott says these actions include contacting congressional representatives to urge them to support the Holt bill, as well as talking with secretaries of state and county election officials who certify the machines and make purchasing decisions with taxpayer money.
Scott directs people to VerifiedVoting.org, a site run by Stanford University computer science professor David Dill, which keeps a tally of where congressional representatives stand on the issue when contacted.
He also says there's a welling movement in the artistic community to support the cause.
"People are realizing how important it is to have a verified voting trail to account for people's votes. No one wants a hijacked election," he said.
Jackie Kane, a concert and events promoter in Los Angeles, hopes to develop a benefit concert to raise awareness about the Holt bill. She's currently seeking artists who are interested.
"Going forward with electronic voting, with its possibilities for fraud and mistakes, doesn't make sense. Computers can crash, there are so many things that can happen," she said.
Scott formed the band only a year ago after moving to Portland from Alaska. Six months later, Railer won a radio station's band search contest, and now the group shares a manager with The Cure and a lawyer with Stone Temple Pilots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Outside of Columbia Records whose president wasn't amused when Scott jumped off a stage into the lap of the executive's girlfriend a number of record labels also are courting the band.
"I thought she was an intern," Scott said. "The president didn't find it amusing."
The band plays rock-wave, a combination of 1980s synthesizer music and modern-rock styling. Scott calls Railer's music "new wave meets modern day." (Listen to an audio excerpt of the band's music.)
Although artists in all realms have taken hits recently for speaking out on important issues, Scott isn't concerned that the band's political stance will hurt it.
"If having a political stance gets in the way, it doesn't matter, because this is such an important thing," he said.
Audience reaction has been nothing but positive. In addition to people who come to hear the music, others are drawn by the cause.
"They come to the concerts because they want to rally their local grass-roots movement to take action," he said. "But at the end of the concert, they say they're really surprised at how great the music was."
Audience numbers so far have topped out at about 100. But Scott expects attendance to grow when Railer reaches the West Coast, where the band's music is better known.
"People told us we were insane to do a national tour when no one knows who we are," he said. "But the smaller concerts have been some of the best experiences because there's been a real exchange of ideas. People come to the shows with printouts of their own information (on e-voting) to try to help us learn even more about the issue."
The group plays in Texas this weekend, then moves to California and then Oregon for the final show of the tour Nov. 21. The band's website includes a schedule of venues.
Rep. Holt, who recently heard about the group, has yet to see the band in concert, but says he thinks music is a great way to rally people for a cause.
"It is heartening to know that people care so deeply about their democracy. It's even more heartening when it's younger people," he said.
Holt's bill, HR2239, also known as the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003, would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA, to require electronic voting machines to produce a paper trail of voter receipts. The receipts would allow voters to verify that a machine recorded their vote correctly and would be used as an audit trail in case of a recount.
The receipt would either scroll behind a glass partition so voters couldn't touch it, or pop out of the machine as with an ATM receipt so voters could deposit it into a secure ballot box.
So far the bill has 66 co-sponsors. There are no Republicans among them.
Scott and other critics of electronic voting machines are anxious that time is running out to address the problem, since states are moving rapidly to adopt the technology in order to meet deadlines dictated by HAVA. States have to replace outdated voting technology by 2006 and must meet earlier application deadlines to qualify for federal reimbursement to purchase the equipment.
Many counties are scrambling to get the machines in place for next year's primary and presidential elections.
"The clock is running out for getting it done in time for the presidential election year," said Holt. "It's not too late, but without any Republicans showing support for this, it's simply not going to get on the legislative calendar. The situation is going to have to change pretty rapidly."
Holt adds that the bill shouldn't be a partisan issue.
"Republicans or Democrats who care about the health of our democracy should want to do something like this. Every member of the House, when I talk with them about it, they understand the issue and they agree with the bill. But the Democrats sign on and the Republicans say they'll go back to their office and check on it, and then I never hear from them again," Holt said.
Outside of Washington, Holt says interest in the bill grows day by day, in part due to word spreading through the Internet.
Holt says that congressional representatives from both parties, who have been returning to Washington from town meetings with constituents, tell him that people back home have e-voting machines on their minds.
"Next to Iraq, this is what they hear about most from their constituents," Holt said. "So the word is getting out."
To read Wired News' complete coverage of e-voting, visit the Machine Politics section.