Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Democracy Under Assault

Those aren't palmetto bugs in our voting machines by Will Moredock

Frank Heindel is a computer-savvy, tough-minded Charleston commodities trader. When he is not buying and selling corn and wheat, he makes himself a holy terror to the folks at the South Carolina and Charleston County election commissions.

Within days of the June 8 party primaries, he started firing off Freedom of Information requests to these two obscure bureaucracies, trying to find out more about the way our state’s 12,000 electronic voting machines work. In so doing he inspired an almost-Kafkaesque theater as bureaucrats ducked and dodged and dragged their feet to avoid owning up to the mess they had just supervised. This FOI attack may have already claimed its first victim: Charleston County Election Commission executive director  Marilyn Bowers suddenly announced her retirement on Sept. 16.

The June 8 primaries left many of us angry and skeptical that Alvin Greene, an unemployed man with no campaign staff, no headquarters, not even a computer or a website, could defeat the well- healed, well-organized campaign of Democratic Party veteran Vic Rawl for the U.S. Senate nomination. While Heindel did not vote in the Democratic primary, he was among the skeptical.

“When the Alvin Greene results came in....I thought that it is indeed possible for the results to say absolutely anything and no one could disprove it,” Heindel told me in an email. “We could all just stomp our feet and say, ‘Why, that is just not possible,’ but our voting system is so woefully inadequate we could be told any result and would have no other recourse than to just accept it....

“Then after the election, the State Election Commission and Marilyn Bowers are on the news saying how wonderful the machines performed. They were reliable and the security was in place so no one had anything to worry about. (State commission executive director) Marci Andino told Fits News that not one machine malfunctioned in S.C. And that is when my BS meter started to go off and I started the (FOI requests) to see what was really going on behind the curtain.”

Behind the curtain bureaucrats were running from the light. (See Frank Heindel’s correspondence with election officials in Charleston and Columbia on my blog.)

At the heart of the drama was Heindel’s request for a disc containing the list of “events” which had affected the 391 voting machines in Charleston County on June 8. (In S.C., voting machines do not  experience “failures” or “errors.” They have “events.”) Heindel made the request by email to Bowers on June 11.

Over the next two months Heindel barraged the Charleston County and state election commissions with dozens of emails and shelled out more than $300 for staff and copying services, trying to obtain public records which should be easily accessible. For two months Bowers offered excuses for her failure to deliver. Most alarmingly, she claimed she could not comply with Heindel’s FOI request without surrendering proprietary information, which belongs to the machines’ manufacturer, Election Systems & Software.

“The Security Plan is not available for public review,” Bowers wrote in an email. “I am sure that you can understand that protecting the integrity of the election process means not allowing outsiders access to certain items. We conduct very transparent elections but as in any other business (banking, etc) there are some things you don’t want everyone to be able to access....”

Heindel was incredulous. “It just floors me that ES&S is the only one who understands what is going on here,” Heindel told me in an interview. “The average person should understand every step of this process. It should be totally transparent.”

The FOI dispute went to the Governor’s Office, where an attorney ruled that  Bowers had to honor Heindel’s FOI request. Still, the disk with the critical data did not arrive until mid-August. And when it did, it showed that Charleston County’s iVotronic machines had suffered thousands of “events,” including power failures and calibration errors. And no one could explain what had happened or why.

On Tuesday, Sept. 14, Heindel sent an email to the board of the county election commission, outlining his complaints with the iVotronic machines and their oversight. Wednesday afternoon the board met with executive director Bowers. The next morning Bowers sent an email addressed, “To my MANY array of friends in the ‘Election World,’” in which she announced that she would retire after the November election. In an attached letter to the board and staff, she gave personal reasons for retiring. Bowers did not respond to a request for comment.

There is no evidence that these “events” directly affected the vote count. But it strongly suggests that election officials do not understand how their machines work or why they fail. Under those circumstances, anything could happen and they would not know it.

Frank Heindel is now preparing a website with an executive summary of his findings. Watch my blog for details.


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