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Your Vote Counts . . . But Was It Counted?

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‘President-elect’ is a term we may be taking for granted.
By Leigh Bell
Photo by Mark Hiebert

Assuming we don’t have another Bush-Gore debacle, in which wrinkled dotards in equally wrinkled black robes called the fight, the presidential election will be decided by us, the voters. But is our next commander-in-chief really the guy we elect?

Sure. This is a democracy, right? Yes . . . and no, says Pokey Anderson, a longtime advocate of  reforming the U.S. voting system to be more transparent and less susceptible to fraud.

Pokey
Pokey Anderson

“I wish I could tell you [the president-elect] is the man we voted for, but I can’t,” says Anderson, a local freelance journalist and researcher. “We don’t have a way to tell with the equipment we use that people’s votes were counted.”

Anderson is talking about the slew of computerized voting machines that many states—including Texas—bought after Florida’s infamous hanging “chads” stumped the 2000 presidential election. This so-called technological panacea has caused more problems than it’s solved. Anderson lists nine major ones, including elusive software bugs and slippery government certifications, in her well-circulated paper, “Peering through Chinks in the Armor of High-Tech Elections.” She’s called out America’s voting system in numerous blogs and websites devoted to voting reform.

“We are naïve in this country because we think of democracy as our birthright, and yet, somebody might try to steal that from us if we are not alert,” she says. “I believe it already has been.” Anderson knocked democracy off its pedestal during a conversation in a quiet corner at the cavernous Montrose coffee shop, Agora. But many felt democracy was already degraded by the election of George W. Bush.

This growing movement for voting reform considers the current system susceptible to dangerous mistakes, if not right-out fraud. The solution, Anderson explains, is the old-fashioned, pen-and-paper voting procedure: you write in your vote, drop it in a box, and have the opportunity to watch while ballots are publicly counted.

Nothing’s foolproof, “but at least this way there’s a true paper trail,” Anderson says. “I don’t really care who wins, as long as that is who the people voted for,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s King Kong in office, if that’s who the people voted for.”

Her goal to change voting methods—one she undertook about four years ago—is strictly non- partisan. It’s not about who is elected. It’s about how.

But we don’t only vote for officials. We also vote on issues—crucial ones, like California’s decision on same-sex marriage. What if inept voting machines skewed the results of that vote?

Anderson is no newcomer to a cause. As an openly gay female, she’s championed the rights of women and lesbians. She is petite and quiet, but her presence is strong. Supposedly, that’s what it takes to challenge a stuck-in-its-ways government. But she’s not alone.

Search “touch-screen voting machines” on the web, and the first group of articles reports serious and plaguing problems in the system. In the 2006 mayoral election of Waldenburg, Arkansas (population 80), touch-screen voting software reported zero votes cast. But the only guy running said he voted for himself.

Perhaps the most infamous stain on the touch-screen record is the 2006 U.S. Congressional election in Sarasota, Fla. Computer results for the next congressperson showed no votes for more than 18,000 people who showed up that day and cast votes for other issues on the ballots.

“You’re telling me a person who took the trouble to vote for the dogcatcher didn’t bother to vote for their congressional seat?” Anderson says. She added that these 18,000-plus “missing” votes seemed to be for the Democratic candidate Christine Jennings, who lost to Republican Vern Buchanan by 368 votes, making it the second-closest congressional race in the country.

“I believe the wrong person is in office,” Anderson says.

Florida and California (and, most likely, Ohio after resolution to its lawsuit against an e-voting manufacturer for faulty products) dumped their touch-screen systems, but all still use electronic voting software to manage some aspects of elections, such as counting votes.

Some of this software comes from Hart Intercivic, an Austin-based company that also provides most election-related technology to Texas. An investigation by the state of California was “able to discover attacks for the Hart system that could compromise the accuracy, secrecy, and availability of the voting systems and their auditing mechanisms.” Plus, the investigation found, there’s no way to ensure that the software that a government previously certified is the same software installed in voting machines on Election Day.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued similar findings in its September report on the voting process. The Election Assistance Commission, established to oversee it in 2002, allocated some $3 billion in federal grants for states to update their voting equipment.

There’s not enough federal oversight of voting mechanisms, the report says, and even if adequate management started now, “these actions will not affect the vast majority of voting systems that are to be used in the 2008 elections, and it is uncertain when this situation will change relative to future elections.”

So is our next president the guy we voted for?

The election is over, but voting in its present form goes on. Pokey Anderson doesn’t want anyone to forget that. “If your roof leaks, you notice when it rains,” she says. “When it rains, you want to fix it, but when it’s sunny, you want to be at the beach.” When elections are finished, she goes on, “the media moves on to other crises and people don’t put it on their priority list.”

You can participate in the voting process all year. Visit these sites to find out more:

www.verifiedvotingfoundation.org 

www.votersunite.org 

www.electiondefensealliance.org.

Leigh Bell is a Houston freelance writer. She wrote about preacher Jay Bakker and his gay-affirming church, Revolution, for OutSmart’s May issue.

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