How Voting-Machine Lobbyists Undermine the Democratic Process | The New Yorker
Earlier this month, Georgia’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission voted to recommend that the state replace its touch-screen voting machines with newer, similarly vulnerable machines, which will be produced by E.S. & S. at an estimated cost of a hundred million dollars. In doing so, the panel rejected the advice of computer scientists and election-integrity advocates, who consider hand-marked ballots to be the “most reliable record of voter intent,” and also the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which recommended that all states adopt paper ballots and conduct post-election audits. The practice of democracy begins with casting votes; its integrity depends on the inclusivity of the franchise and the accurate recording of its will. Georgia turns out to be a prime example of how voting-system venders, in partnership with elected officials, can jeopardize the democratic process by influencing municipalities to buy proprietary, inscrutable voting devices that are infinitely less secure than paper-ballot systems that cost three times less.
The influence-peddling that has beset Georgia’s voting-system procurement began years earlier, in 2002, when the legislature eliminated a requirement that the state’s voting machines produce an independent audit trail of each vote cast. That same year, the secretary of state, Cathy Cox, signed a fifty-four-million-dollar contract with the election-machine vender Diebold. The lobbyist for Diebold, the former Georgia secretary of state Lewis Massey, then joined the lobbying firm of Bruce Bowers. The revolving door between the Georgia state government and the election venders was just beginning to spin.
Something similar happened last fall in Delaware, where the Voting Equipment Selection Task Force also voted to replace its aging touch-screen machines with a variant of the ExpressVote system. When Jennifer Hill, at Common Cause Delaware, a government-accountability group, obtained all the bids from a public-records request, she found that “the Department of Elections had pretty much tailored the request for proposal in a way that eliminated venders whose primary business was to sell paper-ballot systems.” Hill also noted that a lobbyist for E.S. & S., who was “well-connected in the state,” helped “to shepherd this whole thing through.” Elaine Manlove, the Delaware elections director, told me that the twelve members of the election task force each independently concluded that ExpressVote was the best system for the state. “It’s not a big change for Delaware voters,” she said. “They’re voting on the screen, just like they do now.” (A representative from E.S. & S. told me that the the company “follows all state and federal guidelines for procurement of government contracts.”)
The ExpressVote machines use what are known as ballot-marking devices. Once a vote is cast on the touch screen, the machine prints out a card that summarizes the voter’s choice, in both plain English and in the form of a bar code. After the voter reviews the card, it is returned to the machine, which records the information symbolized by the bar code. It’s a paper trail, but one that a voter can’t actually verify, because the bar codes can’t be read. “If you’re tallying based on bar codes, you could conceivably have software that [flips] the voter’s choices,” Buell said. “If you’re in a target state using these devices and the computer security isn’t very good, this becomes more likely.” This is less of a concern in states that require manual post-election audits. But neither Georgia nor Delaware do.