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The Voting Machine Jackpot

By Max Blumenthal, AlterNet. Posted August 26, 2004.

On August 24th, droves of state and county election officials converged on Washington, D.C. for a four day-long conference designed to help prepare them for the crucial task they will perform this November 2. The conference will allow them to chat with the four members of the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) appointed by President Bush to administer election standards, mingle with congressional members involved in recent election reforms, and finally, they will be presented with awards by the three major voting machine companies that wined, dined and lobbied them throughout the entire four days.

Though the notion that the voting machine industry would use a purportedly educational conference as its forum to lobby state and federal officials is startling, it is only the latest front in the industry's campaign to earn as much federal money as it can with as few complications as possible. By setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars each year to help states buy new voting equipment without mandating standards for that equipment, the 2002 Help America Vote Act's (HAVA) most enduring reform has been the establishment of a taxpayer-funded piggy bank for the voting machine industry. And with hundreds of millions of HAVA money still slated for distribution to the states, the industry is eager to sell them its new direct-recording-electronic touch screen voting systems (DRE's).

Unfortunately for the industry, during its roll to record profits, DRE's have been demonstrated as vulnerable to fraud by voting technology experts while the machines themselves have demonstrated a tendency to go haywire in numerous elections, including last spring's election in California in which many Diebold DRE's malfunctioned and may have disenfranchised thousands of voters. Events like the California crash have led scientists, lawmakers, and concerned citizens to argue for a paper trail system so voters can see their vote was cast properly and election officials can perform recounts if necessary. However, the industry apparently views the paper trail movement as an obstacle to widening its profit margin, and the paper trail itself as a risky proposition that could add to its public relations headache by providing further evidence of faultiness of the its technology. In the rush to send out its machines before November, the industry has identified the paper trail movement as the chief obstacle to widening its profit margin.

In a furious effort to prevent its cash cow from becoming a sacrificial lamb, the industry contracted the lobbying powerhouse, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), to wage a bitter PR counter-offensive against its perceived enemies. The industry has also found a quiet but effective partner in Doug Lewis and the Election Center, a 501 c-3 non-profit that helps train and regulate election officials and certify voting machines which has nevertheless accepted donations from the industry while assisting ITAA to develop talking points and lobby the very officials it trains.

The groundwork for the voting machine industry's path toward a lucrative federal giveaway was laid in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 Florida recount debacle, when punch-card voting systems were blamed for throwing the results of the presidential election into doubt. With Americans of all political stripes disillusioned with their democracy and with congress under pressure to deliver voting reform legislation, ITAA's lobbyists gleaned a golden opportunity. As ITAA's senior VP of communications, Bob Cohen, said, ITAA's lobbyists arrived on Capitol Hill in 2001 to demonstrate DRE systems for members of congress and to push for a bill which would encourage states to replace their lever and punch-card systems with DRE's.

ITAA is America's premier information technology lobbying firm. On its website, it describes itself as "the only trade association representing the broad spectrum of the world-leading U.S. IT industry," an industry which, according to ITAA, represented over $800 billion in spending in 2001. ITAA has over 350 corporate clients including major defense contractors like Boeing and Silicon Valley giants such as EarthLink and Dell.

According to Bob Cohen, none of the major voting machine manufacturers were ITAA clients when it lobbied congress in 2001. Yet because ITAA is America's only major IT lobbying firm, by pressing for a bill that allotted states with federal money to buy new voting systems, ITAA ostensibly hoped to boost revenues for the voting machine companies that would inevitably become its clients – and thus reap a windfall profit.

In 2002, ITAA's agenda advanced with the passage of HAVA, which was ushered in by Representatives Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Chris Dodd (D-CT). Though HAVA does not mandate that states replace punch-card systems with DRE's, it provides significant encouragement. For instance, HAVA requires that each polling place have a voting machine accessible to people with disabilities. Though there are various disability-accessible systems, many states found purchasing the easily available and aggressively marketed DRE's the easiest way to satisfy this requirement. But perhaps the best motivation state officials had to buy DRE's was HAVA's promise of heaps of federal money. This year alone, congress has earmarked $500 million under HAVA for states to buy new voting systems.

"The unfortunate thing about HAVA is it encouraged the states to buy new machines before any standards were put into place, so states tended to buy the shiniest equipment they could find – which was touch screen voting machines [DRE's], although they're not required," said David Dill, a Stanford University computer scientist and leading paper trail proponent.

With the industry newly flush in the wake of HAVA's passage, it entered into formal discussions with ITAA about mounting an aggressive PR campaign to vilify DRE critics and shore up the confidence of election officials. As the Center for Media and Democracy's Diane Farsetta reported for Alternet on August 2, ITAA issued an E-voting Industry Coalition Draft Plan in late 2002 to industry executives proposing a campaign to "create confidence and trust" and "repair short term damage done by negative reports and media coverage." The plan proposed to target the media, academics, lawmakers, the public and "those involved in the purchase decision." Although ITAA fashioned its plan to present a positive, proactive agenda, it was soon revealed as a reactive attempt to convince states their DRE's were worth taxpayer money despite the findings of computer scientists who had cast the reliability and security of DRE's into doubt. In an August, 2003 conference call between ITAA's president, Harris Miller, and industry executives, Miller declared that his plan was carefully worded because "we just didn't want a document floating around saying the election industry is in trouble, so they decided to put together a lobbying campaign," according to a transcript of the call published by Scoop. The conference call was also occasion for Harris to set his lobbying fees – a whopping $100,000 to $200,000 per company. (To the chagrin of ITAA, the call was secretly recorded by the publisher of voting reform activist Bev Harris' book "Black Box Voting," David Allen, who was given a passcode by an industry insider disturbed by the lobbying campaign. "Basically he was eavesping on a private call," declared ITAA's Cohen. "He had no right to be in on that call.")

Four months later, ITAA and the industry made their relationship official by forming the Electronic Technology Council (ETC). According to ITAA's Cohen, the council is "a trade association and part of its program is informing the American voter on electronic voting and doing outreach. But we don't do PR." ETC's chair, David Hart, who is also president of the DRE manufacturer HartInterCivic, gave a more frank assessment of ETC's agenda to Computerworld in December, 2003: "We came together because our environment has become chaotic.... We want to be part of the debate and tell our industry's side of the story. There's a lot of misinformation."

Upon its formation, ETC dished out the industry's side of the story in the form of personal attacks on its critics, whom it cast as egomaniacal and revanchistic. On May 5, 2004, after Johns Hopkins University scientist Dr. Avi Rubin presented his findings on the perils of DRE technology to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, ITAA issued a press release accusing him of belonging to "a small vocal minority" and stating, "To anyone who has used, or is familiar with this technology, Dr. Rubin's 15 minutes of fame is starting to feel like 50." ITAA's Cohen said of paper trail proponents, "These detractors would like to take us back to Florida in 2000 when elections officials were holding ballots up to the light to see if the voter made an imprint or not."

"A trade association has the ability to take the more benign vendors and the less benign vendors and bring everybody to a consensus," says Dill of Stanford University. "ETC could have been a way to bring the companies together to make some changes. But instead, every month they come out with a new theory about why we [paper trail proponents] are doing what we're doing, and every time they ignore some very legitimate concerns."

The industry and its lobbyists have found quiet assistance from the Election Center's Doug Lewis, who according to Bev Harris, "holds the most powerful position in the United States when it comes to election security." Little is known about Lewis' background except that he once ran a computer parts store for eight years before it went out of business and according to Harris, he claims to have been an assistant to a president – though he doesn't say which one – and was the head of the Texas and Kansas Democratic parties – but doesn't say when. Now Lewis' Election Center organizes and trains state election officials, and through the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), he s voting machine certifiers. Lewis did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

Considering that Lewis' Election Center is one of America's leading regulators of state elections officials, his collusion with the voting machine industry and its lobbyists raises serious conflict of interest issues. Not only has Lewis' Election Center accepted $10,000 a year from 1997 to 2000 from voting machine vendors Diebold and ES&S, Lewis arranged the August, 2003 conference call between ITAA and industry executives. Lewis is also the organizer of the August 24-28th conference of elections officials in Washington, D.C., which is sponsored by Diebold, ES&S and Sequoia. At the conference, Lewis will host a seminar entitled "The Media: Fighting Back (Getting the Story Straight)," ostensibly a boot camp for elections officials wishing to participate in the voting machine industry's PR campaign against paper trail proponents.

As is the case with most conferences that Lewis is involved with, prominent computer scientists and voting machine experts who advocate for paper trail printers in DRE's have not been invited. At the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers (IACREOT) conference on August 1st, 2003, which Lewis helped organize, Bryn Mawr College computer science professor and leading voting system security expert Rebecca Mercuri was forcibly ejected despite the fact her credentials were approved. According to Dill, who was in attendance, "While Professor Mercuri was being escorted off the premises, voting machine companies were busy lobbying everyone in sight." Dill added, "The Election Center is the embodiment of an entrenched elections establishment that has been very resistant to change, particularly on paper trail issues."

With one of the country's foremost regulators of state election officials squarely in the camp of the voting machine industry, if voting machine reform is to take place, the onus is now on congress. However, calls for paper trail legislation have been met with bitter resistance there. Last June, former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean issued a petition signed by over 120,000 voters to Rep. Bob Ney, a HAVA sponsor who, as chair of the governmental affairs committee, is in charge of bringing voting reform legislation to the House floor. "Today we call on you to require any electronic voting machine used in this election to produce a paper trail – one that allows voters to verify their choices and officials to conduct recounts." Dean also hinted at a nefarious plot by the voting industry to steal the election for the Republicans by noting Diebold CEO Wally O'Dell's pledge to "helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president."

Ney's response to Dean came in the form of a terse, hostile "Dear Colleague" letter. "Left-wing groups like yours and America Coming Together [a Democratic 527] that are exploiting this issue to inflame your supporters and raise money for yourselves are recklessly making claims that are unsupported by the facts," Ney wrote. Needless to say, Ney has refused to bring legislation to the House floor mandating paper trail printers in DRE's.

Though Dean and Ney's exchange highlighted the difficulties paper trail proponents face at the highest levels of government, it was a dispute so clearly animated by partisanship it actually served to obscure the agenda of the voting machine industry, its lobbyists and its supporters in government. The champagne will probably be flowing freely in the Diebold boardroom if Bush wins re-election, but does that mean that the voting industry and right-wing lawmakers are obstructing the advent of paper trail printers in order to fulfill a surreptitious scheme to steal the election for Bush? While it's irresponsible to dismiss such a scenario as a baseless "conspiracy theory," it's worth noting that HAVA's two Democratic sponsors, Rep. Steny Hoyer and Sen. Chris Dodd, have joined their Republican colleagues in opposing paper trail printers.

Given the success the industry and its cavalcade of lobbyists have had in compromising the integrity of state election officials and members of congress in their quest for as much federal money as they can get its hands on, it would seem that a more salient explanation for their motives is good old-fashioned corporate greed. It's not as intriguing an explanation as election theft-plotting, but that doesn't make it any less outrageous, does it?

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