Rage Against the Machines

Like a modern version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, well-meaning people battle corrupt mechanisms only to discover that the true enemies of democracy are human.

But the coalition wasn't going to lie down for this. The group didn't know if Kaplan was aware of what she was walking into, which, given the sly reorganization Shiver planned, would leave her with little power but all of the blame if something went wrong. So they sent Brinegar, with her League credentials, as a friendly emissary. Brinegar sweetly presented the visiting Kaplan with a copy of Leahy's "adviser" contract and the manager's chart depicting the new order inside the elections department.

No fool, Kaplan took a step back. She began asking for a specific job description, and she wanted a contract. The coalition pushed the county commission to give her a three-year contract, and to undo Shiver's reorg scheme. "We wanted to buy her freedom," Rodriguez-Taseff explains, "to do what needs to be done to fix this department." The commission obliged, except the contract was only for one year.

Poor leadership was only part of what went wrong in September 2002. Another significant problem was the voting machines themselves, the 7200 iVotronic systems purchased months earlier after a typical county hall lobby-fest. After the election, Rodriguez-Taseff had gotten a copy of the contract won by Elections Systems & Software, Inc. She spotted the problem with it right off. The contract was written in such a way that the company would be almost completely paid off right after the November election, and likely before any major problems could be discovered. The county initially dismissed this criticism. "They said, öBollocks. You sweet little folks don't know what you're talking about,'" laughs coalition member Dan McCrea.

Jonathan Postal
The  garage band of democracy do-gooders, clockwise from back left: Marta Gillette, Courtenay Strickland, Franisco Pardo, Dan McCrea, Bud Gillette, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, and Sandy Wayland.
Jonathan Postal
The garage band of democracy do-gooders, clockwise from back left: Marta Gillette, Courtenay Strickland, Franisco Pardo, Dan McCrea, Bud Gillette, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, and Sandy Wayland.

But a May 2003 report by the county's independent inspector general was critical of both the contract and the performance of ES&S, calling it overall "a bad business decision," on the county's part. The report points out many instances in which the super slick sales pitch of company reps didn't match up to what they actually delivered. For instance, the county needed to have ballot items appear in three languages, and the company promised that its system could do that with no problem. Yet, according to the IG report, ES&S knew that this would require a bit of jury-rigging of the slug-brained machines. In this case, it meant that the machines took much longer to boot up on election day and required the county to buy more equipment for them to work properly.

The report also pointed out the underlying reason the county was and is in the fix it's in. The investigator found elections staff in general to be an incurious, co-dependent lot, disturbingly complacent about the competence and veracity of the vendor. "According to Mr. Leahy, we currently do not have the independent knowledge of how to work the system," the report stated, incredulously. The OIG recommended, "cutting the umbilical cord," of dependence, which the company had clearly fostered in order to milk more cash out of the dimwitted and fecund county.

This sort of thing of course made critics and some county commissioners wonder whether they should ditch the ES&S system altogether. Given the expense, however, the report suggested making do for the time being, with some caveats, including much greater vigilance of the vendor's claims.


Meanwhile, outside the asylum, a buzz was sweeping the nation's elections activists and computer geeks: CAN WE REALLY TRUST THESE INFERNAL MACHINES? The answer depends somewhat on how much you trust your government and the free-market democracy it leases.

The truth is that the standards for accuracy and accountability have always been pretty low in American elections. Until 2000, people generally didn't think too much about whether a few ballots got lost or altered along the way. Elections supervisors nationwide pray for a wide margin of victory, for this conceals a multitude of sins.

Many people argue that the big problem with these systems is that there's no 100 percent certain way to verify that what the voter touches on the screen is what will end up counted at the end of the day. Many things can and do go wrong between the touching and the tabulating, such as software bugs that cause undervotes or overvotes, touch screens worn out by too many jabbing fingers, and the not-at-all-remote possibility of sabotage by system hackers or anarchy-minded voters. In Miami, the reform coalition held town hall meetings in the summer of 2003 and circulated a petition calling for a voter-verified paper trail of electronic voting. Last September, commissioner Jimmy Morales sponsored a resolution calling for a paper trail, but it was downgraded to doing a "study" of the issue, meaning nothing would get done. The coalition also began making numerous public records requests in an attempt to investigate the local history of the touch screens.

Florida scrapped the punch-card ballot system in 2001, but failed to establish a uniform system for electronic voting. The result was predictable. There was a scramble among voting machine vendors to get their whiz-bang technology into county elections departments, ASAP. First the state had to "certify" the systems for use in Florida, a process that unfortunately offers few qualitative assessments. Then, each county was free to buy whichever system it preferred. Of the 67 counties in Florida, 52 bought optical scan systems, in which voters mark a paper ballot and it is scanned into a computer for tabulation.

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