Letter to California Voter Foundation

5025 Broken Oak Lane
Columbia, MD 21044
Jan. 15, 2013

Kim Alexander, President
California Voter Foundation
PO Box 189277
Sacramento, CA 95818

Dear Ms. Alexander,

This letter is prompted by the content of the letter signed by you and 28 other persons that was sent to President Barack Obama on November 20, 2012. While your letter cited “the problem of voters waiting in long lines to cast a ballot,” its major thrust was to claim that DRE-based voting machines, as a class, have been “widely discredited because of fundamental usability, security, accessibility, reliability and auditability issues.” I do not agree with this assessment.

In my opinion, the priorities in your letter are sadly misplaced. Consider the following:
(1) Federal elections are carried out in many states under the supervision of a Secretary of State who is elected (or selected) as a member of a particular political party. This was a material fact in the Florida presidential debacle of 2000, as well as in Ohio and other states in 2012. In Ohio in 2004, the Secretary of State was co-chair of a political party’s campaign. This system is deleterious to public confidence in the fairness of our elections.
(2) In addition to the deliberate creation of long waits to vote, the partisan nature of federal election administration was responsible for the demands that voters show a photo ID. We know that there was no demonstrable fraud that caused this requirement to be implemented. In Pennsylvania, the state admitted in a court filing that there was no fraud and, in that state’s legislature, a Republican party leader said openly that the implementation of the requirement would lead to the victory of his party’s Presidential candidate. (The courts delayed implementation of the requirement and President Obama won Pennsylvania.) Those citizens without drivers’ licenses are, typically, the poor, the young, college students, the elderly, and the handicapped. Minorities form a significant fraction of this group and the group typically votes for the opposition (Democrats) in nearly every (Republican-dominated) state that attempted to implement the photo ID requirement. Vote suppression was the strategy behind the effort.
(3) The setting of boundaries for a state’s Congressional Districts is, in most cases, established in a partisan manner, using deliberate gerrymandering to pack supporters of the opposition into as few districts as possible. This permits the majority party to considerably exceed its rightful percentage of Congressional Districts. (Both Democratic and Republican-dominated states do this.) Now, computers can carry out this process in a diabolical manner, creating far more disparity than was possible with manual methods. The signers of your letter, many of whom are computer experts, evidenced no concern whatsoever over this issue.

Attorney General Eric Holder addressed these concerns in remarks delivered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Dec. 11, 2012. He stated that the US Department of Justice had employed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to turn back efforts in 2012 to suppress voting by demands for photo ID in southern states covered by the act. Unfortunately, the act could not be used against northern states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, not covered by the act. In addition, Mr. Holder called for action “to confront the single largest barrier that American voters currently face, our antiquated voter registration system.” He said, furthermore, that “we should consider reforms to the redistricting process for state and federal offices – so districts are drawn in a way that’s neutral, that promotes fair and effective representation for all…”

Addressing these problems requires legislation adopted by Congress; the President cannot fix them. Suggesting that the President act by “reviving and re-invigorating the US Election Assistance Commission” (EAC) ignores the actual on-going situation in which the Republican Party refuses to nominate its pair of commissioners. There are no sitting commissioners of the EAC because of this and the situation is unlikely to change unless the Republican Party alters its views. My opinion is that Republicans are unlikely to revise their views because their intent to suppress votes is opposite to the function of the EAC, which is to make it easier to vote.

To alter the partisan nature of election administration, my proposal is to require each state to administer its federal elections, as well as establish the boundaries of its Congressional districts, by a bi-partisan commission. Furthermore, each citizen 18 years and older who does not have a driver’s license deserves to receive, free of charge, a photo-based identification card that will guarantee acceptance for voter registration. To charge for this card would be the equivalent of a poll tax, forbidden under Constitutional Amendment XXIV.

In connection with this proposal, I suggest the development and implementation of a National Interstate Database of Vote-Eligible Citizens. I identify this database as “Interstate” because states would remain in charge of registration but, through this system, they would be able to interchange registration data through a standard system of electronic messaging (often referred to as EDI, electronic data interchange). Under this system, each citizen of the US would be assigned a unique voter-identification number similar to, but not identical with the Social Security Number. (The latter could not be used under current federal law.) The national voter-identification number, included in the database, would aid in the tracking of citizens as they more between states, and would prevent duplicate voting from second homes in another state. The development of this system also would help eliminate dead persons from registration rolls. The Social Security Administration would be extremely helpful in establishing such a database, and the database could be managed by the Election Assistance Commission or another agency acceptable to Congress (such as the National Association of State Election Directors).

Mr. Holder addressed this point in his Dec. 11 remarks. He discussed the possibility of “creating a system of automatic, portable registration.” My proposal responds to this idea. It is certainly unclear that these proposals have any chance of passage in the current Congress, but I have submitted them to appropriate members of Congress in order to try. It is my understanding that particular members of Congress are preparing their own versions of legislation on these subjects.

Finally, your Nov. 20 letter’s hostility to DRE-based voting systems as a class and, therefore, your sole endorsement of mark-sense ballot systems, has no technical basis despite your claim quoted in the first paragraph of this letter. Each system needs to be evaluated individually. Mark-sense ballot systems have the disadvantage that voters do not always follow instructions for hand-marking their ballots. Therefore, marks may vary and some may not be correctly sensed by the machinery. It is not surprising that disputes result and post-election examinations by neutral experts are necessary. Furthermore, central-count systems in which marked ballots have to be manually transported to counting stations provide the opportunity for chicanery during the transportation. Instances of fraudulent treatment of ballots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided a good reason for the replacement of ballots with non-ballot lever machines.

In 2002, the Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act. This act provided funds for replacement of older systems (primarily pre-scored punch-card systems), and required that all voting systems have an audit trail. Note that the legislation does not say “paper audit trail.” It is highly unlikely that the Congress will work to adopt similar legislation again in the near future, as you request. One effect of this legislation was that it made the use of lever machine unlawful because they do not have an audit trail. In operation of these machines, each set of voter’s choices are added to the previous sum for each candidate and issue alternative, and no record of each voter’s selections is retained. Nevertheless, lever machines remained in use in New York State until 2009, and I know of no evidence showing that the California Voter Foundation protested the continued use of these machines.

DRE-based voting machines have the advantage that voter’s selections are via a touch-screen (in most cases), and therefore, there are no idiosyncratic human-made marks that can confuse a sensing machine. Thus, the user-interface is superior to that of mark-sense ballots. Typically, each voter’s selections are retained in a write-once memory, providing an audit trail and the ability to re-sum the selections if necessary. I fully agree that no Internet connection should be permitted. I suggest that instead of blanket hostility, you and your colleagues could provide a set of best practices for DRE-based machines, concentrating on assuring correct and secure software, and other quality-control features that would provide strong confidence that the correct results have been released.

A pertinent point here is that in the election of Nov. 6, 2012, no disputes about vote-counting arose, certainly not in states using DRE-based systems. There is a minority party in every one of these states, with intelligent members capable of recognizing malfeasance or misfeasance if either occurred. Yet, your letter of Nov. 20 chose to stress the non-issue of a paper audit trail and failed to discuss in any detail the obvious issues that came out of the election.

Feel free to transmit this letter to any interested party. I am planning to make it available on my website, roygsaltman.com. My email address is roygsaltman@msn.com.

Roy G. Saltman

Note: The writer is author of the book The History and Politics of Voting Technology, Palgrave Macmillan (2006), and is author of the NIST report Accuracy, Integrity, and Security in Computerized Vote-Tallying (1988). The latter report called for abandonment of the pre-scored punch-card voting system used in many states including Florida in 2000. His 1988 advice was ignored until 2001, after the election debacle validated his recommendation.

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