Last month, a group of western Tennessee county election officials were told their preferred voting methods had essentially come to an end. The death knell, according to state election coordinator Brook Thompson, who moderated the gathering, was the Help America Vote Act, a federal law passed in the aftermath of what many still call “the Florida debacle,” the 36-day period in which the nation tilted and swayed as the Sunshine State’s ballots were counted and recounted until the Supreme Court put an end to it, much to the consternation of Democrats everywhere.
Since a big pocket of western Tennessee counties are known as the “punch card cult,” a nickname reflective of the voting method that drew so much scrutiny to Florida, the news was greeted with cautious optimism. HAVA, as it’s known, will bankroll new electronic upgrades for counties, though maintaining the computers in the years to come will be a county expense. Voting machines are expected to be in place by the middle of next year, possibly as early as the May Tennessee primary.
Some counties, however, were concerned that Thompson had misled them about HAVA. The act, which will provide Tennessee with $55 million to upgrade voting methods, does, in fact, permit continued use of punch cards if they adopt a system to educate voters how to use them.
“There were election officials who felt [Thompson] wasn’t very straightforward,” says Republican lawmaker Joey Hensley, who says he was told months ago—erroneously—that HAVA was phasing out punch cards. “I think Brook would like to see every county on the same voting system. He’s not considering what counties want. Local election officials know more about their county than he does.”
Hensley’s district includes his home turf, Lewis County, about an hour’s drive southwest from Nashville. About 7,000 voters cast a ballot last November there using the punch card system. Officials prefer that method because, more than anything, it’s easy to teach election workers how to administer it.
“As I told Brook, on our election commission, one issue we do agree on, Democrats and Republicans, is that we want to keep our punch cards,” says Jimmy Hensley, Joey’s brother and a member of the Lewis County Election Commission.
Many election officials were tipped to the discrepancy between what Thompson said and what HAVA required by an ad hoc, grassroots group called Gathering to Save Our Democracy. The group formed after last year’s presidential election because of concerns that electronic voting machines in key precincts in Ohio might have been rigged. Wally O’Dell, the CEO of touch-screen computer company Diebold Inc. sent a fund-raising letter to Republicans saying he was “committed” to helping Bush win Ohio’s electoral votes. Democrats took that to mean Diebold’s machines would be configured accordingly. It didn’t help that a year before, researchers at John Hopkins University examined Diebold’s Windows-based software and concluded that it could easily be hacked into.
Save Our Democracy isn’t so much against computerized voting as it is for a paper trail voters can see before they leave the election booth. Each verification would remain with the computer and be the primary source for authentication in the event of a recount. The group also is concerned that the software inside electronic voting equipment is proprietary, meaning election officials can’t, in theory, look at the source code to see if it’s been tampered with. “We’ve evolved into a country that has privatized elections,” says Bernie Ellis, a retired immunologist and a Save Our Democracy organizer. “How we got to this point is beyond me. Our concern is the proliferation of machines controlled completely by private companies, companies that are highly partisan and in some cases owned by foreign corporations.”
Which would make a lot of sense if taxpayers didn’t employ so many election officials across the state, including Thompson, all hired to ensure the validity of the state’s elections. Thompson, 43, has worked in the secretary of state’s office since 1988 and was appointed to the election coordinator’s job in 1995. He says he’s been patient with Save Our Democracy but doesn’t appreciate insinuations that he’s been compromised by machine manufacturers trying to hawk their computers.
Thompson confirms that he’d said HAVA would prevent counties from purchasing punch card systems—but that’s because Tennessee agreed to accept an extra $2.5 million from the federal government specifically earmarked to replace them. Thompson’s office set up an advisory panel to oversee the HAVA-spending process, including public meetings around the state. From Thompson’s viewpoint, members of Save Our Democracy are the Rip Van Winkles of the electronic voting issue, arriving at the last minute to disrupt a process two years in the making. “If...we were the only ones considering a switch to electronic voting,” he says, “keeping punch cards might be acceptable. But 37 other states aren’t doing that.... Fair or not, after 2000, punch cards became the poster child for how not to run an election.”
A verified paper trail also has problems. Computers have to be retrofitted for printers, software must be rewritten, the paper tends to jam, and the system has to be configured to ensure voter confidentiality.
Is all the hassle necessary? Davidson County has used an electronic voting system since 1986. It’s not a touch-screen system, but it is computerized—complete with processor, memory cartridge and printer. Each of the county’s 604 machines has three security backups, and votes can be kept in the equipment until the next election. An audit is performed on each unit before each election. Davidson County, like every county in Tennessee, employs two full-time techs—one Republican, one Democrat—to work on the units. On Election Day, three observers must sign off on a test run. At the end of the day, each computer prints an aggregate total of the election results. Voters receive no receipt of how they vote.
Davidson County’s computers have never been contested in court. But Shelby County, which uses identical equipment, currently has a pending suit, filed after an August primary that produced two tight state legislative races. Lawyer David Mills is asking the court to determine whether Shelby County’s voting system is constitutional. Thompson says similar suits across the country have failed to persuade courts to adopt a verified paper trail.
The problem with discussions involving voting systems is that they’re primarily piecemeal. Computer scientists can hack into computerized systems but don’t know the perils of lever-machine systems, for instance, which 13 Tennessee counties still employ, but which, like punch cards, are being phased out in the state. “The way I look at voting systems is that each one has at least one strength and one weakness,” says Justin Buchler, a Case Western Reserve University political scientist who has researched voting methods.
Paper ballots, like punch cards, can be thrown in a dumpster. The ACLU, in a challenge to the 2000 election, claimed they had twice the error rate of other voting systems. Lever machines? Ask New Yorkers, where lever machines proliferate, how easy it is to manipulate them. “If you can get access to the back of the machines, you can roll the counter by hand,” Buchler says. Plus, in last year’s election, New York City voters noticed something peculiar: levers on the machines had fallen off.
All the attention on voting methods is probably misplaced anyway. According to the Davidson County Election Commission, most election fraud is caused by people trying to vote more than once. Thompson says he’s seeing more voter registration irregularities lately.
There’s no doubt a host of concerns about electronic voting, especially touch-screen computers. But it might not be the machines themselves. Unfortunately, the humble poll volunteer, average age 72, often takes the blame for being computer illiterate. “They’re good, dedicated people,” says Jeffery Zaino of the American Arbitration Association, which runs private elections for unions and other groups. “But they’re not used to new technology. They see these computers only one or two days a year. There’s going to be problems.”