As command centers go, the offices of Earnhardt Pirkle Inc.—a remodeled old home with narrow creaky stairs and a piano in the basement—are not exactly the lair of a Bond villain. And David Earnhardt makes an unlikely bombthrower. Tall and slightly rumpled, with an oval of graying beard and an enthusiastic manner, he seems more music professor than Michael Moore-style firebrand.
That does not make him any less dangerous. As Earnhardt sees it, he has only a few months left to change the outcome of November’s presidential election. The difference between him and the subjects of his new documentary, Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections, is that he means to do it on the up-and-up—in plain sight, leaving a paper trail.
“We’re gearing toward January and February, because that’s when all the primaries are,” the Nashville filmmaker says, his back to the traffic outside the plate-glass windows of his Eighth Avenue office. “There are something like 20 state primaries in one day. By the end of February, we’ll know who the nominees are. We’ve got a year to get this [movie] to as many people as possible.”
The reasons for all the urgency are spelled out in Earnhardt’s documentary, which will screen twice at the Belcourt on Feb. 4—the day before Tennesseans go to the polls en masse in the state primary. Uncounted takes a sprawling issue—the hazards of vote fraud and paperless, unverified electronic voting—and gives it the punch of a conspiracy thriller, using livid examples and sharp production values to portray a clear and present danger to democracy.
You’ve heard a lot of the information in Uncounted before—the 2000 voting debacle in Florida, the long lines and snafus that plagued Ohio precincts in 2004, the suspicious discrepancy the same year between the exit polls (which favored Sen. John Kerry) and the vote tallies in 11 of 12 battleground states. Or perhaps you haven’t. Vote-reform activists complain that the mainstream media failed to explore or even report some of the more troubling incidents. But you probably haven’t seen it all gathered in one place, shaped to form a persuasive if one-sided argument that, at the very least, electronic voting without paper backup is a virtual license to steal elections.
That has made Uncounted and its initially reluctant maker hot properties on a coast-to-coast circuit of house parties, independent theaters and community-action events—one that has proved to have surprising strength as an alternative distribution model. True, no one would confuse it with the largesse of a major-studio promotional junket. Earnhardt’s itinerary is less likely to include limos and presidential suites than a rental car and a Comfort Inn.
But no one should underestimate its power, either. Two weeks ago, Earnhardt stood on the stage of the historic Grand Lake movie palace in Oakland, Calif., before a fired-up crowd of more than 400 people. The same thing happened two days before in Sacramento, where he’d been invited to appear. Last November, the movie’s premiere at the Belcourt had to turn away so many people that the follow-up screenings next week were quickly added.
“The November showing of Uncounted definitely increased the number of people who signed up with our group and who have been writing emails, letters and faxes (and making phone calls) to advocate for our position,” says Bernie Ellis, founder of the Nashville vote-reform group Gathering to Save Our Democracy. Thanks in part to the screening, Ellis says, along with the efforts of Davis-Kidd co-founder Thelma Kidd, the group has created an EMMA email account that now reaches more than 2,000 supporters.
With screenings lining up around the country, Uncounted is tapping a vein of voter dissatisfaction that may prove to be a gusher—just as America lines up at the polls. Consigned only a few years ago to the same fringe as 9/11 conspiracy theorists, Illuminati doomsayers and adult Hannah Montana fans, vote-reform advocates are now finding their concerns taken seriously. Not just by mass media—most recently in The New York Times Magazine, which devoted several thousand words to misgivings about vote security—but also by legislators and election officials. After the jackhammering that voter confidence took in 2000 and 2004, they say change is likely coming.
But when? How much and how fast? Administrators at the state and county levels hope it doesn’t come too soon. But for proponents of voting reform, it can’t come soon enough. To see the reasons laid out like a prosecutor’s brief, thanks to David Earnhardt, you need only hit play.
Uncounted begins with an image guaranteed to make liberals seethe and conservatives roll their eyes: a flashback to election night 2004 and the slow-motion coronation of President George W. Bush, whose “decisive victory” comes into focus like a bad dream accompanied by anxious music. Suddenly it all starts coming back: the hours-long lines outside Columbus, Ohio, polls; the accusations of voter intimidation, miscounted ballots and malfunctioning machines.
“This problem is not just one thing,” says Earnhardt, who runs the Earnhardt Pirkle production company with longtime Nashville actor Mac Pirkle, an Uncounted executive producer. “It’s not just about voter-ID problems, it’s not just about the evidence in the exit polls, it’s not just about undervoting or how hackable the software is. It’s on all these different fronts at once.”
Earnhardt admits that there are few smoking guns—just lots of bullet casings. Uncounted musters anecdotal evidence from far and near: from New Mexico, which in 2004 led the nation in the rate of “undervoting,” or casting a ballot without making a selection in the pivotal race; from Gahanna, Ohio’s, Ward 1-B, where the total cast for President Bush in 2004 outnumbered actual voters by more than 3,600 votes; from Florida, where in 2006 a mysterious 18,000 undervotes in Democrat-friendly Sarasota coincided with the Republican challenger’s razor-thin victory. The machine used there was the ES&S iVotronic—the same one used in Davidson and other Tennessee counties.
If Uncounted has one shadowy figure, it’s Diebold Election Systems (now known as Premier Election Solutions), maker of both ATMs and the AccuVote touch-screen voting machine, which emerges from the film as the Keyser Soze of the election racket. The movie interviews Steve Heller, the California whistleblower who leaked law firm documents that showed Diebold was making uncertified—and hence illegal—software upgrades before California’s presidential primaries in machines that would handle the elections. For leaking the documents, Heller was charged with three felony counts, including receiving stolen material. The company settled a resulting lawsuit for $2.6 million. Earnhardt also produces a quote from former Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell’s 2003 invitation letter to a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for the Ohio Republican Party, expressing a commitment “to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year.”
The movie does not interview anyone from Diebold, although there is CBS News footage of a Diebold marketing director stating that the company “does not control the election.” Earnhardt says he preferred instead “to pose the viewpoint of people fighting for fair elections.” If that hands ammo to critics who would accuse the movie of bias, Earnhardt says he tried to show that tainted elections are not a partisan issue. Anyone expecting a triumphant coda after the 2006 mid-term elections that swept in Democrats gets instead a litany of sobering headlines: missing voting-booth memory cards, triple-counted votes, charges of voter intimidation, and even one Hill County, Texas, precinct where every 10th vote flipped from Democrat to Republican.
“Whether they’re Democrat or Republican, people get that this is not a good thing,” Earnhardt says. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s more that who’s in power is in a better position to count the votes.”
Before the 2004 election, David Earnhardt had never gotten involved in the political process, though he’d always been interested. Growing up in Greensboro, N.C., he had been moved hearing Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and he still remembers proudly the first time he voted, in 1972.
“It was for Shirley Chisholm,” he recalls with a fond chuckle. “She didn’t have much of a chance. But I believed in what she was saying.”
He majored in film and TV at UNC-Chapel Hill, then worked his way up through a series of regional TV gigs until arriving at WTVF-Channel 5 as director of creative services in 1986. With visual artist Patricia Sommers Earnhardt, his wife of 15 years, he founded his own production company in 1993. He spent the years honing his craft on event films for nonprofit organizations such as United Way.
If not for the 2004 elections, he might have continued in the same vein indefinitely, racking up more of the Telly awards that line shelf upon shelf outside his office door. (The awards are outside; his beloved Miles Davis art and paperweight hearts are inside, along with a bumper sticker that reads, “After we bring democracy to the Middle East, can we get a little here?”) But as the Bush-Kerry face-off loomed, his staff wanted to help get out the vote. Their excitement was contagious.
Shortly before the election, Earnhardt and his wife found themselves going door to door in the All Nations neighborhood off Charlotte, asking citizens to go to the polls. Vividly, he remembers stopping at one house where a woman listened skeptically to his appeal. He recalls what she said when he was done: “I’m not gonna vote. It’s already been decided. They’re gonna put in whoever they want.”
He assured her that was not the case. “That’s what they want,” Earnhardt remembers telling her. “They want you to be passive.” Then came election day 2004. As the reports poured in from Ohio’s beleaguered voting precincts, and others across the country, a sickening epiphany came to him.
“She was right,” Earnhardt says quietly. “I was the one being naïve. There were some votes that didn’t count.” The realization stung. It made him mad.
After the outcome, he says, he waited for the national media to look in depth into the fishy reports coming out of Ohio. “Two days after the election, nothing was being written,” Earnhardt says. “It was one of the loneliest moments of my life, as far as involvement with a public issue.”
The galvanizing motivation to make Uncounted didn’t come until months later. That turned out to be the National Election Reform Conference, a gathering of concerned parties from 30 states held in April 2005 at Nashville’s Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, TSU and Fisk. With many of the nationwide sources he needed in one room—including the event’s organizer, local voting-reform activist Bernie Ellis—Earnhardt says he could hardly turn down the opportunity.
Ellis too was motivated by working as an electoral volunteer. “I personally registered 909 voters,” he says proudly, including three women ages 69, 71 and 73 who signed up outside the Columbia Wal-Mart for the first time in their lives. For each success story, though, there were countless others who brushed him off with a wave or hollered back, “Doesn’t matter.”
“To be faced by that skepticism and mistrust in the process,” Ellis recalls. “And then to see how fragile the process really is....”
The interviews Earnhardt shot that April weekend started nearly two-and-a-half years of self-financed work. He tracked down bloggers and online muckrakers. He gathered strong on-the-record interviews with U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and John Conyers. At the end of long nights trying to distill hours of complex issues to lucid nuggets, he would sit alone in Earnhardt Pirkle’s basement, improvising on the piano. The process was often grueling.
“I would do it all over again,” David Earnhardt says. “And again. And again.”
Though it stops just shy of embracing conspiracy, Uncounted charts an interlocked web of human error, system flaws, mechanical problems and corporate arrogance. Deliberate or not, the end result is destructive either way: a disengaged, disenfranchised voter base, which may or may not be represented by the candidates it elected.
Ironically, the current flap over touch-screen voting arose from attempts to avoid another crisis like the Florida stalemate of 2000. Does the phrase “dimpled chad” ring a bell? After more than 2 million punch-card ballots were tossed out in the 2000 election, either because they registered multiple votes or none at all, what could solve the problem quickly?
Enter the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Among other provisions, the act called for updating voting machines to be more accessible to disabled voters. This had the intended effect of replacing the old voting machines with something theoretically more reliable. The federal government allotted billions for states to adopt new systems county by county in time for the 2006 elections. In Tennessee, 93 of 95 counties adopted or adapted direct-recording electronic machines (DREs), which permit touch-screen voting. Their advantages include ease of access for physically impaired voters and none of the significant costs (or waste) in printing paper ballots.
That last benefit, however, has come to look more like a liability as the accuracy and veracity of vote counts have come into question across the country—without a paper trail to verify the results. In one of Uncounted’s most alarming sequences, a former Republican software consultant named Clint Curtis testifies before a congressional committee about how to rig touch-screen voting software so that it “flips” votes—giving a vote cast for one candidate to the opponent—without raising suspicion. In another, a Princeton computer-science professor, Edward Felten, demonstrates how to implant a virus into a touch-screen voting machine using just a typical drawer key and a doctored memory card in less than two minutes.
On its website, Premier posted a response that dismissed the Princeton testing, arguing that “touch-screen voting machines are stand-alone units that are never networked together and contain their own individual digitally signed memory cards.” Todd Baxter, Maury County’s election administrator for 14 years, disputes that anyone could hack the machines this easily and not leave fingerprints. The best way to guarantee the integrity of the vote, he says, is vigilance. In Maury County, Baxter says, the machines and their activating devices are kept locked in separate locations, and his thorough pretesting process would expose anything as nefarious as “negative voting”—a type of computer hack that redistributes votes by adding to one candidate and subtracting from another so the total still matches the number of actual voters.
“The [memory] cards are not let out of officials’ sights,” Baxter says. “We’ve got the keys to the car, you might say.”
Joe Irrera, a Nashville voter advocate and computer expert, says that he knows how easily voting software can be hacked. He’s done it. Two years ago, after downloading from a public website Diebold’s central tabulator server software—the global election management system, or GEMS, which figured in an election-year controversy in Shelby County in 2006—the Nashville software developer and IT director says he was able to manipulate the apportionment of votes using nothing more sophisticated than Microsoft Access and a Windows computer.
“You can manipulate an election in multiple ways,” Irrera says. First, he explains, the machines can be simply underallocated—exactly what happened in 2004 at Ohio precincts where some voters waited 12 hours to vote. Second, if the touch-screens are miscalibrated, the touch can accidentally award the vote to another candidate. Third, he argues, you can use “malicious code changes” to alter the result.
“There’s no way to know what these machines actually tally,” Irrera says, other than the machine’s own internal printer if it has one—and if that jams or has itself been altered, “there’s nothing independent to verify the vote.”
Brook Thompson, Tennessee’s state election coordinator, believes it is “not accurate” to say that “because of DREs, the election system is at risk.” In fact, he says that some DRE features such as a final review screen actually safeguard against voter error.
If there’s a bright spot for voter advocates, it’s that the hazards of paperless voting may become moot. Lawmakers at both the state and federal level are pondering legislation that would make mandatory a paper back-up for the voting process.
In the U.S. House, New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt has introduced HR 811, the Voter Confidence & Increased Accessibility Act. Under its provisions, states must use a voting system that makes a voter-verified paper ballot the ballot of record. In the Tennessee legislature, Sen. Joe Haynes and Rep. Gary Moore introduced similar legislation last year. Commissioners on the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, or TACIR, met Jan. 17 to consider the feasibility of implementing a new system.
But don’t bust out the champagne just yet. First, switching to a new system will present new headaches as well as improvements. The favored system involves optical scanning (or “opscan”) machines, which read a paper ballot marked by the voter. Think of a Powerball ticket, only with better odds. While critics say those too are hackable—as demonstrated dramatically in an HBO documentary called Hacking Democracy—their greatest advantage is that the paper ballots allow for an independent audit to check against the electronic tally.
At the same time, paper ballots are costly. Over a 10-year period, Todd Baxter says Maury County spent more than $300,000 printing paper ballots. In the event of low turnout, in a snoozer of a municipal election or a referendum, a lot of those went to waste. During that same time, Baxter says the county tossed an average of 65 percent of its paper ballots, an expense of some $200,000. In a larger county like Davidson, there might be 100 different ballot combinations to print.
Second, there is the matter of the ticking clock. It’s already too late to switch systems for Tuesday’s state primary. Opinion is divided, however, on whether November remains on the table.
“If they want to require [a new voting system], give us enough time to do it without a crisis in the implementation stage,” says Brook Thompson. Considering that the haste in adopting DREs led to the current situation, his caution seems reasonable. Even some members of Gathering to Save Our Democracy have expressed ambivalence about pushing officials to meet a 2008 deadline.
Then again, vote-reform advocates respond, consider the stakes. “We’ve reached a point where everyone involved in the process agrees we need change,” says Bernie Ellis. “But at a time we should be celebrating, we’re wondering why anyone would risk another unsecured election in this state. Nobody wants Tennessee in 2008 to be Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004. Our country won’t survive on a bed of cynicism.”
Even so, Ellis says, vote-reform advocates have come a long way in the past three years. With a not-so-subtle hint of vindication, he recalls how one local newspaper tagged him and his fellow paper-trail proponents in 2005 as a bunch of backward “Rip Van Winkles.” What reactionary rag would print such a thing? Oh, wait—that was in the Nashville Scene.
And as their cause gathers momentum, so does Uncounted. In February, the movie is the featured attraction of the DFA Film Club, an event sponsored by the Democracy for America website that rose from the ashes of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. A notice will go out to some 600,000 members nationwide—anywhere from 200 to 400 of whom will show the DVD at house parties across America on the same night, with Earnhardt conducting a post-film discussion via telephone.
In addition, the Brave New Theaters site—an offshoot of maverick documentarian Robert Greenwald’s screw-the-system efforts—reports that 19 on-request Uncounted screenings are on deck from Chicago to Wheatridge, Colo., over the next month. The hosts are a tossed salad of groups and individuals: the Concerned Citizens of South Montgomery County, Texas; the Petaluma Progressives and the Coloradoans for Voting Integrity; and just plain Betty of Federal Way, Wash.
And interest continues to spread. One day last week, as Earnhardt was preparing to have his picture taken by a visiting photographer, a staffer blithely walked in and said, “Mr. Earnhardt—Al-Jazeera on line one.” Earnhardt and the photographer looked at each other with wide eyes, and then both burst out laughing.
The demand has forced Earnhardt to become a public speaker, something he didn’t relish at first. He still sounds hesitant when he fields questions about his two sons, Eric and Christopher, or the family life he says he tries to keep separate from work. But with Pirkle’s encouragement, he has started to embrace his new role as spokesman.
“It doesn’t take great numbers of people to make a difference,” Earnhardt says, “just committed people willing to go to meetings. Almost always, it’s when one person takes an action that real change is made.”
On that score, he says he talked to Greenwald, whose films such as Outfoxed have created an alternative distribution model for activist documentaries at house parties and grassroots community screenings. The advice he got from Greenwald was to reach “one viewer at a time.”“So that’s what I’m doing,” Earnhardt says. “One viewer at a time.”
Children are not able to bathe themselves, so we expect the parents to bathe them…
Direct quote; The point of the article was to remind readers to take a moment…
Unions make me wet and mess my Captain Kirk jammies!
So what are the egregious sins the unions will be addressing? Not enough strikes?
Kristen, I'm sure you're a fine mother and I'm certain your children are wonderful. I…