As Athan Gibbs Sr. sat transfixed before his television Nov. 7 and watched the events of the oddest presidential election in the history of this democracy unfold, he was deeply struck by the uncertainty of it all.
“I couldn’t believe,” Gibbs says, “that we were unable to verify who’d been elected president.”
So he started thinking about a solution. The end result may well be the future of voting as we know itand not just in this country. Gibbs, 54, currently has a patent pending on his Tru-Vote Voter Validation System. If his invention passes muster with the Independent Testing Authority in Huntsville, Ala.one of two federally approved companies that certify voting equipment in this countrychances are good that voters will use Tru-Vote during Tennessee’s next election.
Gibbs is the owner of a local accounting and tax service. He’s also worked as the corporate tax auditor for the Tennessee Department of Revenue. An associate minister for Pilgrim Emanuel Baptist Church, Gibbs has a deeply spiritual nature that can’t hide his bean counter’s bent. The need for recount after recount in November angered him. The partisan analysis of hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads made him crazy because it introduced the element of interpretation to a process where there should have been none. The glaring fact of lost votes struck him as a direct threat to democracy.
“Basically, what we do when we vote is walk into the booth, push a few buttons, and walk out feeling good because we think we’ve voted,” Gibbs says. “But how do we know we’ve voted? The way the system works now, we simply trust that it happens. And any system built on trust where that trust is not verifiable can be abused.”
Gibbs began to devise a better system; he came up with a working model in three weeks. He felt so strongly about its soundness, and about the cause, that he decided to approach his former boss, Democratic Congressman Bob Clement. Gibbs had worked for Clement in the ’70s as a financial analyst when Clement was the commissioner of the now defunct state Public Service Commission.
“His ideas were so forward-thinking, so progressive, and so practical,” Clement says, “that I immediately got on the phone and started making calls on his behalf.”
Clement’s first call was to Secretary of State Riley Darnell, who, along with Brook Thompson, Tennessee’s election coordinator, met with the budding entrepreneur.
“I was impressed with the work he put into it,” Darnell says, “but it’s our policy only to buy certified systems that have already been used in elections.”
After hiring a series of technical contractors, Gibbs had a prototype up and running for demonstrations by May of this year. His creation is a touch-screen voting system that runs on hardware the size of a laptop. Although there have been other touch-screen systems on the market for some time, Tru-Vote is unique in that it splits the screen for the voter. On the left side, the candidates, their offices, and their party affiliations are pictured. On the right side is the entire ballot for the voter’s review. As the voter chooses candidates, the selection is built onto the ballot on the right. If the voter wishes to change selections, he simply touches the picture and is returned to that page. Until each office is selected, the ballot on the right reads in bold red: NO VOTE.
But what makes Tru-Vote revolutionary is what happens next: The machine prints a receipt. No other system on the market does that.
“You get a receipt with everything else you buy or any other transaction you make,” Gibbs says. “You get one at the ATM or when you buy a pack of gum. And with a receipt, you can trace anything back to its source.”
The receipt issues an ID number to protect the voter’s anonymity. It’s also machine- and time-specifica stopgap against voter fraud. Using the ID number, the voter can verify that the vote has been recorded by either calling an 800 number, logging on at the Tru-Vote Web site, or cross-checking the vote against what Gibbs calls a PPC (published public count), a record that could be printed in any local daily or weekly paper after an election. If the vote isn’t recorded, the voter simply reports the problem to a local election official.
“What this does,” Gibbs says, “is allow the voters collectively to audit the election.”
It’s difficult not to appreciate the simplicity and ingenuity of the system. In theory it solves three of the most glaring problems the Florida imbroglio revealed: the overvote (when a voter chooses two candidates accidentally), the undervote (when the voter skips a selection), and the uncounted vote. The fact wasn’t lost on Clement, who invited Gibbs to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate his system to the entire Tennessee congressional delegation.
But a theoretical model is worthless if it doesn’t hold up in practice. “The new modules we’re working on have to work 100 percent of the time,” Gibbs says. “You only get one chance to botch an election, and then you’re out of business.”
Gibbs is marketing his system to secretaries of state around the country and refining it for certification. Along the way, he has had the good fortune of meeting Bob Boram. Not only is Boram one of the foremost experts on election standards in the country, but the 1242 software system he invented currently runs on 70 percent of the voting machines in Tennessee.
More than $700 million worth of Boram’s voting systems have sold nationwide. And now he’s come out of retirement to work with Gibbs.
“Gibbs’ system gives more peace of mind to voters,” Boram says. “It has the advantage of getting rid of all the paper in the ballot system. There’s no storage problem. There are no recount problems. And with the receipt, there’s no question of interpretation or voter intent.”
Not all election officials are sold on Tru-Vote’s receipt system. “It’s unique,” Brook Thompson says. “But there’ve been dozens of new systems on the market since Florida, and we need to make sure we’re not opening one can of worms to take care of another.”
Gibbs has been invited to demonstrate his system to secretaries of state in New York, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as to state legislators in Florida. Three weeks ago in Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson changed his agenda at the last minute during a Rainbow Coalition meeting to get Gibbs on the schedule. “It’s a revolutionary breakthrough,” Jackson tells the Scene, “because it gives a more accurate count of the vote. We lost millions of votes in November. It was a disgraceful election. The problem for Gibbs right now is that more people need to see his system.”
Gibbs is now raising capital to perfect the system before it’s tested for certification. He’s seeking between $3.5 million to $5 million to complete, certify, and market his makeover for democracy. If Tru-Vote is certified in Huntsville, the next step will be to sell the system to secretaries of state across the U.S., then contract with Dell or IBM to mass-produce the machines. Upgrading voter technology is big business. The business model Gibbs has been considering allows for a 55 percent gross profit.
Though there’s big money in election reform, Gibbs is quick to point out that his first motivation was for change.
“Anger by itself is a wasted emotion,” Gibbs says. “But if it’s enough to make you do something about a problem, that’s a different story.”
Great article, Abby! Before heading out to Donks, take a pole dance class or have…
Donna, among the many things you are delusional about, one of those is that all…
Sad to see Nashville officials offering to pony up public funds and begging the production…
Hell's too good for Fincher.
Slavery is alive and well at ol' Vandy. Break out the mint juleps and the…