Friday, September 07, 2007

Out of touch

Short-sightedness and parochialism threaten to derail the best chance we've had so far to put a dent in the noxious spread of unreliable, crash-prone, highly-hackable touchscreen voting. HR811, originally sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), unfortunately does not ban the suckers outright, but
would require a voter-verified paper record for every vote cast nationwide beginning in 2008. It also would mandate routine random audits in most federal races and would designate paper ballots as the ballots of record for audits or recounts.
I certainly have expressed my doubts about touch-screen voting enough times before, so my concern about the prospects of this bill should be no surprise. (Sidebar: There is some overlap between those two links because I tend to use the phrases "touchscreen voting" and "electronic voting" interchangeably.) The bill has been amended since it went into committee and not in good ways: For one, it put off the time before its provisions have to be fully implemented until 2012. On another, more serious, concern,
it maintains that voting software is a “trade secret” and therefore not subject to public disclosure, a nuance that has turned some voting rights groups against the bill.
The inability to examine the software except in tightly-controlled situations overseen by the manufacturers has been one of the real sticking points for those concerned with the security of the machines, a concern that is by no means without merit, as this video shows:

Despite these worries, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) both say they still support Holt's bill as a step forward with the intent to go for more later. That is not a position uniformly accepted; indeed one site has charged that Holt's bill is actually a complex scheme for a pork-barrel project for a company in his district. However, despite my real misgivings about the "trade secret" provision, I'm going to throw my lot with VerifiedVoting and the EFF and say I hope for passage on the same basis they do.

Even though it has 216 co-sponsors, the bill faces an uncertain future, having
been hit by a barrage of criticism from state and local election officials and election machine makers who contend the timelines are unrealistic, the audit process is overly cumbersome, the reliance on paper is too restrictive and the money allotted to replace existing systems, $1 billion, is insufficient. ...

R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center of the National Association of Election Officials, said the bill was so objectionable that, if passed, he would recommend that state and local election officials refuse to run future federal elections.
State officials also griped that they were supposedly left out of the process.

These are the same sort of state officials, let's not forget, who took the money allocated by 2002's Help America Vote Act (which Holt's bill would amend) and rushed into the arms of the manufacturers of electronic voting machines who dazzled them with hi-tech visions of a no-hassle future - in the course of which those manufacturers won so many concessions related to machine security, maintenance, and auditing that the states had essentially privatized their election processes, failing to obtain and in some cases outright ignoring expert advice about the devices' reliability and safety from hacking.

Why they'd do that is easy to understand, since every time they do have experts check them out, they get results like this:
The problems we found in the code were far more pervasive, and much more easily exploitable, than I had ever imagined they would be.
Now, with the doubts rising right along with the number of head-scratching election results in precincts using the suckers, it appears those same states are more concerned with not admitting they fucked up and were taken for a ride than in protecting the integrity of their voting processes.

As a result,
[a]fter Rules Committee members from both parties expressed concerns about the measure Wednesday, the bill’s fate appeared in jeopardy.

The committee opted to reconvene Thursday rather than approve a rule for considering the bill Wednesday evening, raising the possibility that the bill could be delayed until Friday or pulled altogether.
Now, we hear, it won't come up before Monday amid the concerns of House Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who said she's "scared" that "we're waltzing off a cliff here" while trotting out the classic kill-with-kindness routine,
citing a need for more comprehensive election reform.
Which in English translates to putting your arm around someone and saying "I'm really on your side, really I am" as you stick the knife in their back: "More comprehensive reform" is Washington-speak for "we'll do it later, maybe."

So even with literally half the House as co-sponsors not only may Holt's bill fail, it might not even come to a vote, killed by a handful of people, particularly on the Rules Committee.

Oh, and even if it does pass the House, it may not get anywhere in the Senate, again because of the Rules Committee: Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has warned that moving too quickly might be “an invitation to chaos” and has introduced her own bill
that has a more flexible timeline and sets rules for software inspection more acceptable to the industry.
More acceptable to the industry than making the software a trade secret? Those must be some rules. I'm really impressed with Feinstein's commitment to the integrity of the democratic process, as making things acceptable to the manufacturers of voting machines is apparently more important to her than making them acceptable to people who want their votes secured and counted fairly, accurately, and completely.

Even so, even so, I want the House to pass the damn bill. I want Dianne Feinstein to have to make the choice to bottle up the bill. I want her to have to be in the position of explaining why the voting public of her state and of the nation have to accept at best a weaker, looser bill that leaves the current scandalous system in place for who knows how much longer in order to serve the interests of a handful of corporations. I want to see that.

Footnote: Holt's bill and other attempts to limit electronic voting have been criticized by groups representing disabled voters on the grounds that e-voting gives them the ability to cast a vote unassisted. However, there is nothing in Holt's bill that would inhibit the use of touchscreen voting; rather, it requires the existence of a verifiable paper trail. And even if the machines were banned outright, that ban still could be modified to allow localities to have a few such machines set aside for disabled voters to use. I frankly think the objection is without merit.

Another Footnote: Via This Modern World comes this bit from Wired for mid-August:
On November 17th, 2005, an anonymous Wikipedia user deleted 15 paragraphs from an article on e-voting machine-vendor Diebold, excising an entire section critical of the company's machines. While anonymous, such changes typically leave behind digital fingerprints offering hints about the contributor, such as the location of the computer used to make the edits.

In this case, the changes came from an IP address reserved for the corporate offices of Diebold itself.
Maybe their corporate computer was hacked.

A Third Footnote: Something I want to know is, if a handful of House leaders can with such apparent ease shut down a bill which, again quite literally, half the House has co-sponsored, why the hell can't they do it to Bush's blood money for Iraq?

Some questions, the saying goes, answer themselves.

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