Aug 12, 2004 – With the fall elections fast approaching — and reverberations from the 2000 presidential election never put to rest — debates about voting machines are making news across America. The Virgin Islands is no exception.
Although the territory's top elections official insists that V.I. voting machines are secure and reliable, some national experts say that this cannot be. No electronic voting machine is infallible, they say.
On the WYAC-FM talk show "Free Speech" last week, computer scientist Rebecca Mercuri challenged remarks made by John Abramson, supervisor of elections, on a July 21 broadcast of the same show.
Program host Roger W. Morgan had asked Abramson about "rumors getting started about fraud in the election system" and "voting machines being tampered with."
Abramson replied that it must be "somebody's stupidity and ignorance, lack of knowledge about the voting machines." He added, "We utilize what we call an executable CD. It is a software program licensed by Guardian and manufactured by the Danaher Corp. It is similar to going into a store and buying a CD."
He was referring to Guardian Voting Systems, a division of Danaher Corp. of Gurnee, Ill., which among other things designs, manufactures and markets electronic voting machines. See the Danaher/Guardian Web site.)
Mercuri was incredulous at that last remark by Abramson. "To say it's like going to a store to buy a CD shows he is completely ignorant or deliberately malicious," she said. "If that's true, he needs to tell Microsoft. Just because the disk is pre-programmed doesn't mean it is secure at all. If you go on the Microsoft Web site, they constantly modify and change them." She added, "These types of statements are just wrong and need to be addressed."
Mercuri is a leading expert in voting machine security and standards. She is an independent consultant often called upon as an expert witness, and the owner of Notable Software Inc. in Princeton, N.J. She also is a research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Lynn Landes, who has extensively researched and written about voting machines, was somewhat gentler in her assessment. On the basis of that remark by Abramson, she said on Saturday, "he is either extremely naive, or he thinks the voters are. That is a completely wrong statement. You can speak to computer security experts."
For a voting machine to be tampered with, "it doesn't have to be connected to the Internet," she continued. "The disks can be changed in a number of ways. Giving him the benefit of a doubt, he doesn't know you can make these changes right on the machine itself."
She continued, "We know there are a host of ways the numbers can be changed. They can have cartridges not keyed to particular machines or swapped."
Landes is a journalist who specializes in reporting on voting, environmental and health issues, including on her own Web site, Lynn Investigates. She has been a news reporter for DUTV in Philadelphia and hosted a talk show on radio station WDVR in New Jersey.
In an April 4 commentary, she wrote that "Americans aren't really voting. Machines are … And no one seems to be challenging it. As far as I can tell from my own investigations and from discussions with law professors, attorneys and others, there has never been a lawsuit that challenges the right of machines to be used in the voting process."
Landes said recent lawsuits filed in California and Florida "are based on verification. The plaintiffs want voting machines to produce paper ballots so that voters can verify that the machine's output matched their input. They also want paper ballots for manual audits and recounts." But these suits as well as proposed congressional legislation, "leave voting machines in control of election results," she said.
In the same commentary she said: "It is painful to think that as African Americans intensified their struggle for the vote in the 1960s, voting machines were already in widespread use and perfectly positioned to control election results — and, according to some accounts, were already doing so."
On July 2 she filed a suit against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners charging that the use of voting machines and absentee voting in elections for political office is unconstitutional.
2002 Candidate's Continuing Concerns
Both Mercuri and Landes were invited by St. Croix resident Hope Gibson to appear on Morgan's radio show. Gibson, an unsuccessful 2002 senatorial candidate, has taken issue with the territory's Shouptronic voting machines and with the 2002 election procedures. Danaher-Guardian uses Shouptronic machines exclusively.
Gibson said on Monday: "As it stands, our voting machines do not provide for independent audits or recount capability in the event of a challenge to an election outcome. The voters should also demand guarantees simply because there is no vote verification capability of these machines that allows the voter see who they really voted for."
After the 2002 elections, Gibson went outside the territory for advice. She asked the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, the Federal Election Commission, the United Nations Electoral Systems Bureau and the FBI to do "outside investigations into the possibility of wrongdoing."
Communications are continuing with the FEC and the U.N. bureau, she said.
"The nature of communication with the FEC is to address conduct of the supervisor of elections and the Board of Elections regarding the Public Information Act and constitutionality issues as they relate to requirements for requests for and release of public information" about the V.I. elections, Gibson said on Monday.
"Communication with the U.N. assists in gaining the scientific methodology behind election monitoring and election fraud detection as it pertains to underdeveloped or developing countries," she continued. "… These types of indicators may be more revealing when applied to election behavior in the Virgin Islands due to our population size and varied, cultural demographics."
"There's nothing I can do to reprogram that CD," Abramson told Morgan on the talk show. "I can do different things and use the whole operating system that goes with Windows 98, but I can't change the program. When we received our executable CD from the manufacturers, we have people that basically plug in the name of the candidates, the number they get in the casting of lots … things of that nature."
The Paper Trail Controversy
According to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., based consulting firm that specializes in election administration and census and political data analysis, many jurisdictions are moving to optical-scan systems as a safer option to electronic voting.
One of the controversies about the electronic systems is whether they should be used with printers as backup. Most electronic systems do not provide paper receipts that voters could verify and that election administrators could use to verify votes in a contested race.
This is at the heart of much of the criticism of electronic machines, including the ones used in the Virgin Islands. There is no paper trail on the machines the territory uses. They do not allow for an independent vote audit or allow for a vote recount. They only allow reprint of ballots stored in random order. Optical-scan systems use paper ballots that are scanned and tallied electronically but can be hand counted in the event a recount is needed.
A new study by Election Data Services shows that a lit
tle over 50 million registered voters are expected to cast ballots using electronic systems this fall. Another 55 million will likely be using optical-scan ballots, while 32 million will still be using punch cards. And some about a million voters constituting 0.6 percent of the vote nationwide are expected to be using old-fashioned paper ballots.
Canada uses paper ballots with remarkable success, and little ado. According to a Nov. 28, 2000, Associated Press story filed in Ottawa, "Within four hours after the last polls closed in Canada's parliamentary election, officials at 50,000 polling stations had hand-counted virtually every one of nearly 13 million paper ballots. There were glitches, to be sure — an angry voter seized a ballot box in Nova Scotia and threw it into a polluted lagoon. But overall, Canada's federal elections system, which uses no counting machines, had a smooth Election Night."
Mercuri and Landes agree that paper ballots are the safest method, but they say "nothing is foolproof." The territory used paper ballots until 1986, when the first machines took over the process.
Abramson made clear this week that he will not engage in debate arising from the WYAC broadcasts. "I'll not answer questions from those radio programs," he said. However, he was willing to provide information about the machines the V. I. uses.
The territory uses the ELECTronic 1242 machine, manufactured by Danaher Corp. Abramson said Wednesday, "I don't know about other machines. I know about ours. "It is a new company, new management and new product."
The company's Web site says the 1242 system is "proven accurate and secure in over 150,000 elections" and "is designed to meet election needs into the new millennium. It delivers the highest levels of security, efficiency and election integrity."
The Guardian Voting Systems hardware and software have been certified by the National Association of State Election Directors. It is a "direct recording electronic," or DRE, system. It doesn't allow for voter recount or for a voter to verify that his or her vote will be counted as cast.
When asked on Wednesday how voters could know that their votes would be counted as cast, Abramson said: "You would look at the machine physically, look at the face, and then cast your ballot." He added, "I will be voting on the machine on Nov. 2".
A Federally Unregulated Industry
No federal agency regulates voting practices or machines, as each state has its own voting regulations and laws, as specified in the U.S. Constitution.
The United States Election Assistance Commission, an independent bipartisan agency, was authorized by the federal Help America Vote Act. It is a national clearinghouse and resource for the comparison of information on various matters involving the administration of federal elections.
The commission's Web site recommends that election officials "rely as little on the vendor as possible; look for outside expertise. If it is not available in-house, have either election staff or independent consultants design and run tests." Abramson said P and P Communications, a private, independent St. Croix firm, is the V.I. Election System's consultant.
Patrick Phillips, is president and proprietor of P and P Communications. Like Abramson, he did not want to discuss issues raised on the radio programs. However, he provided a description of the testing procedures.
"I test the machines to make sure all the candidates' buttons are functional, to be sure all the counters are at zero, and to put the protective seals on them so they are ready for election day," Phillips said.
"The cartridges go in programmed. We go through each machine one by one. The public is invited to come and examine the machines. We run what we call a 'test election,' where each candidate is given at least one vote, like a mock election. We get a printout at the end of this test and we look at the printout from the back of the machine and it tells the list of all the candidates. At the beginning of the election they all had zero; so after, we look at the votes, and they should at least have one vote."
Phillips continued, "I have a computer consultant onboard with me who does the programming, and a group of other guys do the testing of the machines." That is, they enter the candidates' names in the machines.
Phillips said he has worked with the Election System since around 1988. "I got my first training from Shouptronic," he said. "Later I received training from Electronics Inc., and I have gotten product training from Danaher Corp."
He's impressed by Danaher's product. "They are not those machines those guys on the radio have been talking about," he said; they are still Shouptronic machines. "The only thing that is different is that we upgraded them to operate to use a Windows-based system. It used to be DOS-based. It's not the same machine. These machines are stand-alone units."
When told that Abramson had said that it was "a new company, new management and new product," Phillips declined comment.
Abramson says the Board of Elections in each district does the mandatory testing of the machines, as required by law, and also tabulates the votes.
The Election Boards' Role
Lawrence Boschulte, St. Thomas-St. John Elections Board chair, said on Wednesday that the board tests the machines by means of a mock election. He said the public is invited at that time to inspect the machines as well. The examination for the coming elections will be held on Aug. 24 at the Election System offices on St. Thomas and St. Croix, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Boschulte said a board member will pick a random machine and make sure the serial numbers match the program and that the seal isn't broken. Instruction in the use of the machines also is given at this time. Although the public is invited to participate in the procedure, Boschulte said few people ever attend.
Neither Boschulte nor Abramson could say if any of the board members have expertise in computer operations. The members are publicly elected.
Journalist and author Ronnie Dugger has written biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, as well as other books, and hundreds of articles for Harper's Magazine, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Progressive and other periodicals. He has written extensively on voting machine security issues.
He said in an e-mail on Wednesday: "The logic of DRE insecurity is simple. It's programmed by unidentified programmers (a) at the voting [machine] company and (b) by programmers you may be able to get identified locally."
Dugger continued: "The 'audit trail' is in the computer and completely under the command of the programmers. It can be rigged. It can be told to fix the outcome and then erase the record of its having done it, and print out a false audit trail. The record of each vote is disconnected from each voter when it's committed to the computer's vote tabulating codes, so there is no recountability."
In the July 27 issue of The Nation magazine, in an article titled "How They Could Steal the Election This Time," Dugger wrote:" On Nov. 2, millions of Americans will cast their votes for president in computerized voting systems that can be rigged by corporate or local-election insiders. Some 98 million citizens, five out of every six of the roughly 115 million who will go to the polls, will consign their votes into computers that unidentified computer programmers, working in the main for four private corporations and the officials of 10,500 election jurisdictions, could program to invisibly falsify the outcomes."
Further, he wrote, "The result could be the failure of an American presidential election and its collapse into suspicions, accusations and a civic fury that will make Florida 20
00 seem like a family spat in the kitchen." (See "How They Could Steal the Election".)
Dugger cites the four main privately held companies whose machines will be counting the votes and legal problems they have had in the past. Danaher is not one of the four.
The Source found no information online regarding discrepancies involving the Guardian/Danaher machines. But there is much data available on the Internet about problems with Shouptronic machines.
Dugger wrote in a Nov.7, 1988, article in The New Yorker magazine that Ransom Shoup II, president of Shouptronic, was convicted of two federal felonies — conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection with an FBI investigation of a Philadelphia election. Shoup was fined $10,000 and give a three-year suspended sentence.
A Local Court Challenge
In 1993, then-Sen. Adelbert Bryan challenged Henrita Todman, then supervisor of elections, in a District Court suit involving the Shouptronic machines and alleged voting discrepancies on St. Croix. Bryan claimed "at least three candidates had the same amount of votes at two different places due to their programming of the data of the printout."
Although Bryan lost the case, Judge Thomas K. Moore took issue with the Board of Elections and its supervisor. In his decision, Moore said that "compliance with these statutory provisions is not at the discretion of the election officials. The record is replete with evidence illustrating the rather 'laissez faire' approach of the Joint Boards of Elections to the statutory mandate."
Moore concluded that although Bryan had failed to present evidence of a clear and convincing nature, the irregularities involved could "under other circumstances result in subverting the free expression of the voter's will." And, he said, "because of this concern, continued disregard of any statutory directives by the Joint Boards of Elections will receive the closest scrutiny."
On Thursday morning, speaking on the "AMVI" show on WVWI Radio, Abramson stated that "In my tenure as supervisor, nothing has ever happened. We have had nothing close to that, and we stand ready to continue to give good service."
In answer to questioning by Jean Greaux, Abramson reiterated his confidence in the territory's machines. "It's a one-way street," he said. "We just take the cartridge out and the tape from the back of the machine, the audit trail; it's a one-way read. It puts it in the form of numbers, and we print that out and give it to the press."
He also said on the show: "I became supervisor in April 1995, and I feel pretty comfortable that we have built up on the system and we are ready to take it into the next century."
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