In the small town of Wadley, Ga., a seat in a recent city council election was decided by two votes. But a few days later, a peculiar discovery revealed that the town's voting machines had recorded four more votes than the total number of people that had signed in to cast a ballot. In other words, the folks in Wadley had themselves a voter irregularity situation.
The losing candidate called the Atlanta office of the American Civil Liberties Union hoping to mount a legal challenge and demand a fair election. A machine counted phantom votes, a difference that decided the outcome, and something should be done to assure every citizen that the results were counted fairly, the ACLU argued. The case eventually wound up at the Georgia Supreme Court, where a panel of judges agreed with the ACLU's sentiment but refused to act on behalf of the complainant. For some odd reason, the Court said the ACLU didn't prove why the machine counted four extra votes.
"The law doesn't like election disputes," said Neil Bradley, the ACLU lawyer in the case. "The court set up a ridiculous obstacle requiring we prove how the voting system was tampered with. So the lawsuit was over."
Bradley, associate director of the ACLU's voting rights project, has worked as a civil rights attorney since 1971 and now focuses his full-time attention on our nation's rapidly evolving election technology.
"Election machinery has always been mistrusted," Bradley said last week while visiting Albuquerque as the keynote speaker at the New Mexico ACLU's annual meeting. "Every system is imperfect. But we've got to work for a system that people trust."
Americans, of course, know what happened in Florida during the 2000 Presidential Election. We know there was a flap about butterfly ballots and hanging chads, and we know that Bush was certified the winner by less than 400 votes—far below the statistical margin of error.
In an interview with the Alibi last week, Bradley explained that he didn't come to town to rehash what went wrong nearly four years ago in Florida. The punch card technology, he said, has pretty much been eradicated along with those butterfly ballots that confused voters into selecting Pat Buchanan although they supported Al Gore.
Instead, Bradley came to talk about what has happened since Florida.
He said studies have shown that more than one million votes cast nationwide in the 2000 election were lost because of faulty voter technology. In addition, three million more registered voters didn't get to participate because of some problem with the way their name appeared on the voter list. And as a result, upgraded electronic voting systems are now in high demand.
"I think electronic voting is a bigger improvement," said Bradley, "but security is a major issue that needs to be addressed."
Bradley believes electronic voting will always hold greater potential than the punch card system for accurately counting votes. Lawmakers in Washington seem to agree and have earmarked $2.3 billion to the states to install upgraded systems in time for the 2004 election.
But with any new software, there are always bugs that need to be worked out of the system. And often times, the owners of the software are eager to test the product on the market long before the product is foolproof.
"The software vendor sees a market out there," explains Bradley. "Marketing people sell it. Code writers say there are bugs in it. Marketing people say ’We know, let's sell it and fix the bugs later.' I think that's typical for any software product. That's the stage we're at now."
Hack attack. Meanwhile, some voters naturally wonder where their vote goes when they touch the screen. Bradley says the best way to satisfy voter concerns is to give the public access to the source codes. For example, somebody from UNM that understands computer science should be able to examine the software for glitches and see if it counts votes accurately, Bradley said. In other words, the way the voting technology works should be transparent to the public without fear of hackers.
"I don't think people who have those concerns know how election systems work," said Bradley. "None of this stuff goes on the Internet. If you hack into the vendor, you can't change the code."
In other words, if a rogue employee from a software design company sets up the voting machines to fail, states can easily test for glitches before the system is used, he said.
Aside from a rogue employee, what about partisan officials like Katherine Harris? You remember Harris. As secretary of state, Florida's elections division was under her jurisdiction, while at the same time she was co-chair of the Bush-Cheney election campaign. Bradley contends that, regardless of any secretary of state's bias, county election supervisors still have to load the election software into terminals and check for glitches.
"Cheating in elections takes a lot of insiders," he said. "The security concerns are real, but most of the concerns are properly coming from computer science people working on the code."
What's more, Bradley said, today there is greater public awareness of the widespread problems experienced during the 2000 election, which hopefully will create a more vigilant and informed public.
"We need a system that people have confidence in," he concluded. "It's important that people believe a fair election result was reached, even if they're not happy with the outcome. But right know we are in a state of flux."
There are also concerns that the leading manufacturer of electronic voting technology, Ohio-based Diebold Inc., is run by a partisan Republican. The company's CEO Walden O'Dell is a major Bush campaign contributor who wrote in a GOP fundraising letter last August that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."