Thursday, March 3, 2011

Voting process must be simple and transparent

By Will Moredock

For months South Carolina's touch screen voting machines have been the subject of ugly rumor and speculation. But it was only that – rumor and speculation.
There were many anecdotal accounts of people pressing one name on the screen and another name lighting up. And, of course, there was the still unexplained business last June of Alvin Greene's stunning victory in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Through it all, the State Election Commission has defended its machines, repeatedly claiming that not one vote was ever  lost or miscounted.
Until now there was no way to refute that claim. Now we have the smoking gun.
A group of citizens, in association with the S.C. League of Women Voters, has conducted an audit of Richland County voting machine results from last November and the numbers don't lie. According to the LWV,  more than 1,000 votes from various precincts were missing from the
certified totals in November's General Election. Elsewhere in the county, the detailed vote image file did not provide confirmation for 1,362 votes which were certified.
The Richland County voting machine data were independently analyzed by Dr. Duncan Buell, a computer science professor from the University of South Carolina, and Chip Moore, a Massachusetts programmer and South Carolina native.
“The failure to count votes from some voting machines and the failure to document votes from other voting machines is a human failure, but it’s a human failure that the software should have caught, so the root cause is a software system that isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do,” Moore said in a LWV statement. “What we have done is to run some self-checks that should always have been in the system.”
This is only the latest controversy over the 1,200 iVotronic touch screen voting machines which the state uses exclusively. A few weeks ago, Colleton County reported 13,045 votes for statewide offices on Nov. 2. But an election audit showed that only 11,656 ballots were cast that day, according to the signature rolls. That means an extra 1,389 votes were reported and certified. 
    As in the case of the Richland County machines, an investigation by the State Election Commission concluded that the skewed results were human error and not the fault of the machines.     “Our system is just too complicated for the average person to tell if it is working properly,” according to Frank Heindel, who has led a citizens' effort to replace the iVotronic machines. (See a record of the controversy at his website: scvotinginfo.com.)
Heindel told me last week that the problem is lack of verification between what happens in the county polling places and what gets certified by the SEC. “I was surprised that nobody was checking and double-checking the results,” he said. “I thought the SEC was checking these things before certifying the votes. The county is not doing it and the state is not doing it.”
Heindel doubts that anybody at the State Election Commission has the technical skills to do that kind of verification. “That's unacceptable,” he said.
Heindel is not accusing anyone of vote fraud in the Colleton and Richland County incidents, but clearly when the voting system is so haphazard and unverifiable, almost anything can happen and it would be almost impossible to prove fraud.
Help for our voting system may be on the way. Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, Chairman of the Division of Human-Centered Computing, at Clemson University, has developed a much simpler system and has produced a prototype in his lab at Clemson. Gilbert's system would use a touch screen to select candidates, then print a paper ballot with those selections marked, which the voter could see. The paper ballot would then be scanned into a computer and tabulated. The results would be transmitted to the SEC for certification and every step of the process would be verifiable. It uses open-source software and runs on a bootable DVD, making it almost impossible to hack into. Gilbert told me that his   prototype cost only $1, 500 to build and he is now demonstrating it to legislators and anyone else who is interested.
Will our lawmakers use this information? Don't get your hopes up.
    The GOP-dominated General Assembly appears curiously indifferent to the problems with the state's voting machines. But they are hell-bent on passing a new law requiring voter ID to cast a ballot in South Carolina. This is spite of the fact that there is no evidence in recent decades of anyone trying to cast a vote under assumed identity.
Yet, according to the LWV, perhaps as many as 100,000 voters – mostly poor and elderly – may be disenfranchised by the voter ID law.
If the General Assembly cannot address this state's scandalous election process, perhaps the U.S. Justice Department will.

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