How to unrig an election

This month’s Harper’s has as its feature article a piece by Victoria Collier, “How To Rig an Election”. It is damning, as the title suggests. Collier details the extent to which American elections have fallen prey to manipulation. If you vote in the United States, you should be deeply concerned by this story.

The problem is not voter ID — as the GOP would have you believe — but the computer systems now used to record and tabulate votes across the country. I am going to quote Collier at length because this is an important issue.

…this era was inaugurated by Chuck Hagel, an unknown millionaire who ran for one of Nebraska’s U.S. Senate seats in 1996. Initially Hagel trailed the popular Democratic governor, Ben Nelson, who had been elected in a landslide two years earlier. Three days before the election, however, a poll conducted by the Omaha World-Heraldshowed a dead heat, with 47 percent of respondents favoring each candidate. David Moore, who was then managing editor of the Gallup Poll, told the paper, “We can’t predict the outcome.”

Hagel’s victory in the general election, invariably referred to as an “upset,” handed the seat to the G.O.P. for the first time in eighteen years. Hagel trounced Nelson by fifteen points. Even for those who had factored in the governor’s deteriorating numbers and a last-minute barrage of negative ads, this divergence from pre-election polling was enough to raise eyebrows across the nation.

Few Americans knew that until shortly before the election, Hagel had been chairman of the company whose computerized voting machines would soon count his own votes: Election Systems & Software (then called American Information Systems). Hagel stepped down from his post just two weeks before announcing his candidacy. Yet he retained millions of dollars in stock in the McCarthy Group, which owned ES&S. And Michael McCarthy, the parent company’s founder, was Hagel’s campaign treasurer.

Whether Hagel’s relationship to ES&S ensured his victory is open to speculation. But the surprising scale of his win awakened a new fear among voting-rights activists and raised a disturbing question: Who controls the new technology of Election Night?

Hagel’s surprise win is one of many Collier documents; another, Chambliss over Cleland, 2002:

In 2002, the G.O.P. regained control of the Senate with such victories. In Georgia, for example, Diebold’s voting machines reported the defeat of Democratic senator Max Cleland. Early polls had given the highly popular Cleland a solid lead over his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, a favorite of the Christian right, the NRA, and George W. Bush (who made several campaign appearances on his behalf). As Election Day drew near, the contest narrowed. Chambliss, who had avoided military service, ran attack ads denouncing Cleland—a Silver Star recipient who lost three limbs in Vietnam—as a traitor for voting against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Two days before the election, a Zogby poll gave Chambliss a one-point lead among likely voters, while the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionreported that Cleland maintained a three-point advantage with the same group.

Cleland lost by seven points. In his 2009 autobiography, he accused computerized voting machines of being “ripe for fraud.” Patched for fraud might have been more apt. In the month leading up to the election, Diebold employees, led by Bob Urosevich, applied a mysterious, uncertified software patch to 5,000 voting machines that Georgia had purchased in May.

Bush over Kerry, 2004:

Two years later, of course, John Kerry lost the presidency in Ohio. In this key swing state, election monitors were besieged by complaints of G.O.P.orchestrated voter suppression, intimidation, and fraud. Myriad voting-machine anomalies were reported, including “glitches” that flipped votes from Kerry to Bush. A phony terror alert in Republican Warren County (the FBI later denied issuing any such warning) allowed officials to move ballots illegally to an auxiliary building and count them out of public view. Presiding over the election was the Republican secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, a fiercely partisan fundamentalist Christian who also served as co-chair of Ohio’s Committee to Re-Elect George W. Bush.

Scott over Sink, 2006:

In Florida, Rick Scott was elected governor in November after an historically close race with his opponent, Alex Sink. Scott, a millionaire and Tea Party favorite, squeaked through with a 1.15 percent margin of victory, representing just 61,550 votes, after a number of Dominion machines in Hillsborough County failed to upload results. In the wake of what was described as a memory-card glitch, election workers manually rescanned about 38,000 early-voting ballots, without any supervision by the public or the press. Sink, who needed only 35,000 more votes to trigger a mandatory recount, conceded the following day.

Greene over Rawl, 2010:

There is, finally, South Carolina’s 2010 race for U.S. Senate, which Republican Jim DeMint won with 78 percent of the vote. What is mysterious is not the ultimate outcome, but the Democratic primary that preceded it, which tossed up a fairly fortuitous opponent for DeMint: Alvin Greene, an unemployed thirty-two-year-old accused sex offender living in his father’s basement.

Greene, often described as “incoherent,” ran no campaign: no website, no appearances at Democratic events, not even a yard sign. Yet he miraculously beat his opponent in the Democratic primary, former judge and four-term state legislator Vic Rawl, by an 18 percent margin. Voters and campaign workers reported that the ES&S touchscreen machines “flipped” votes to Greene all day long. Meanwhile, the absentee ballots—which were counted by hand—told a different story. In half of the state’s forty-six counties, there was a 10 percent disparity between absentee ballots and those counted by machine; in Lancaster County, Rawl won 84 percent of the absentee vote.

The entire article is worth your time, even the price of the magazine. The litany of abuse Collier details is alarming and unacceptable. She finishes the article with general suggestions for reform, including what looks like a poorly worded sentence: “A privatized, secret ballot count must be viewed as a violation of our civil rights.”  Of course we consider the secret ballot essential to our civil rights; she means a secret, privatized count of our ballots must be viewed as a violation.

But the secret ballot itself is part of the problem. We did not always have the secret ballot in this country: it was adopted at the end of the 19th century, state by state, as a remedy to the intimidation many voters suffered at the time. Yet secrecy has always been a problematic thing for democracies, and the secret ballot earned many opponents among those who believe transparency essential to democracy. John Stuart Mill was chief among these, arguing that the secret ballot would encourage voters to act selfishly, rather than to exercise the vote as a public trust.

The secret ballot solves a specific kind of corruption, but it allows and abets other evils. In Louisiana, the secret ballot was adopted as a way to disenfranchise illiterate black voters. Absentee voting has also been susceptible to corruption; such abuse in Miami’s 1998 mayoral election led Florida legislators to adopt stringent rules that almost certainly affected the 2000 Presidential election. The secret ballot moreover does not protect the many black and minority voters who are being targeted and intimidated by voter ID laws and similar policies. Meanwhile the economic dynamics that made the secret ballot necessary have largely disappeared.

And, in fact, the secret ballot is now encouraging the corruption Collier describes. Not only does nobody else know how you voted, but the secret ballot means you don’t know how you voted. You can’t even verify that your ballot was processed correctly after the fact. I tried calling my election office after the 2004 race to find out whether my ballot had been tabulated: they could not tell me, and said it would do no good to come to their office in person.

For a few people, perhaps many, the secret ballot is still an important protection. But for most of us it is a false pretense: we advertise our political views quite loudly, badger our friends on Facebook with political posts, and our campaign contributions are readily available online. Even if we are more discrete, our friends and colleagues generally know where our sympathies lie. If the secret ballot is not protecting us, then it is in fact hurting us by hiding from us our very votes. You might had posted twice a day for the last six months quotes from your favorite candidate, but the secret ballot means that come November 6th nobody — not even you — will know for sure whether you voted for that person.

The solution, then, is not to abolish the secret ballot, but to make it an option — that is, to require voters to choose to keep their ballots secret. People who believe they need the secret ballot should be allowed to choose so. Those who do not should be free to publicize their choice, and to verify their decision. Having a significant quantity of open ballots would also greatly reduce the opportunity for manipulation of the sort Collier describes. Elections are rig-able only because the actual results are secret. As the secret ballot was a solution to 19th-century intimidation, the open ballot is a very effective solution to 21st-century manipulation.

For more on the history, controversy, and consequences of the secret ballot, you may read my paper on the subject, titled Secret Ballot.

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