by Lila Hanft, CJN 1/25/08
Between 2004 and 2006, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections (CCBOE) earned an unenviable reputation not just for mismanaging its elections, but for doing so with a conspicuous degree of arrogance, secrecy and partisan politics.
Stories of our county’s mishandled elections cropped up in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, Salon.com, NPR, and in particular, on the HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy.” Ohio was so riddled with reports of voter suppression that many people believed the 2004 election had been “stolen” by the Republicans.
But in 2007, new Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner cleaned house at the CCBOE, appointing new members who chose Jane Platten as director.
As a result, some of the CCBOE’s toughest local critics are now singing its praises.
“The new board and director Jane Platten are phenomenal,” says University Heights resident Adele Eisner, a certified election observer who was a key witness to the CCBOE’s illegal recount in November 2004. Compared with the previous board and director, the new officials are better organized and have much greater “willingness to serve the public,” she says.
“Most people on the whole are very pleased with the current board on both partisan sides,” says Norman Robbins, an emeritus professor of medicine at Case and research director of the non-partisan Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition. “They have proved themselves to be very hardworking and sincere.”
At first, Brunner, an attorney specializing in election law who replaced the controversial Kenneth Blackwell as secretary of state, seemed to lead Ohio elections in the direction of much-needed reform, says Eisner. She founded the Voting Rights Institute (VRI) Advisory Council, to which both Eisner and Robbins were appointed; the VRI serves as a clearinghouse to address voter concerns and to solicit input from concerned communities and organizations.
Over the past year, the VRI Advisory Council’s subcommittees have studied and made recommendations on most aspects of Ohio elections, including increasing voter registration, recruiting better poll workers, certifying and educating election officials, reaching out to voters and to youth, and improving voting technology.
Hacks and glitches
In another positive move, Brunner ordered the EVEREST (Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing) report, a $1.9 million federally funded study. In the study, two teams of scientists, corporate and academic, conducted parallel assessments of the security of Ohio’s three voting systems.
The findings were not good.
“To put it in everyday terms,” Brunner has said, “the tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as tampering with the paper audit trail connector or using a magnet and personal digital assistant.”
Released last November, the EVEREST results were accompanied by Brunner’s own recommendations for election reform. There, critics say, the honeymoon between activists and the secretary of state ended. “I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with the secretary of state’s office,” says Eisner.
The most important of Brunner’s recommendations, particularly for Cuyahoga County, is her rejection of Direct Recording Electronic machines (DREs) like the Diebold touchscreen voting machines which Cuyahoga County bought for more than $20 million in 2006. Like many voter activists, Brunner believes that paper ballots are better than DREs because they can be more accurately recounted.
DREs have been subject to much criticism in the last two years. In his article “Can You Count on Voting Machines?” published in The New York Times magazine earlier this month, Clive Thompson wrote that computer voting is vulnerable to a host of mechanical, procedural and computational glitches.
“One might expect computer scientists to be fans of computer-based vote-counting devices, but it turns out that the more you know about computers, the more likely you are to be terrified that they’re running elections,” he writes. Or as Princeton University computer scientist Ed Felten told Thompson, “Computers crash, and we don’t know why. That’s just a routine part of computers.”
The CCBOE found that out the hard way on election night, Nov. 6, 2007, when the server tallying votes at CCBOE headquarters suddenly froze. No one, including the Diebold technician, could figure out why. Eventually, “like anyone faced with a misbehaving computer, they simply turned it off and on again,” Thompson reports. It worked but crashed again a second time; both times, there was no way of knowing whether any information had been lost.
What about second-chance voting?
Voting rights activists have applauded Brunner and the EVEREST report for exposing the security flaws in every form of voting technology in use in Ohio. Most share Brunner’s preference for paper ballots over DREs. Beyond that, however, Brunner’s recommendations for Ohio elections have baffled activists.
“The groups that I work with -- election reform people across the state -- universally have some very strong concerns about Brunner’s recommendations,” says Robbins.
“Her recommendations don’t follow from the EVEREST report,” explains Eisner. “In many ways, it’s going backward. We’ve got the paper ballots, but it’s no panacea because of the way she’s handling the paper ballots.”
Getting rid of DREs solves some problems but creates others. The important advantage DREs have over other systems is notification or “second-chance voting,” which is the opportunity for voters to check over their ballot to make sure they haven’t made errors like overvoting (excess votes for a given race or issue) or undervoting (absent or insufficient votes).
“All the research both nationally and in Ohio says that you’re going to lose about 2% of presidential votes to voter error” if you don’t provide second chance voting, explains Robbins, who has researched this topic extensively. DREs offer that opportunity. So do paper ballots used with precinct-based optical scanners (PBOS), which allow voters to check their ballots at the polling place before finalizing them.
But Brunner doesn’t recommend precinct scanning. She recommends central scanning, in which the ballots are removed from the precincts to be tallied at a central location, where voters can’t review them. That’s where the ACLU has taken issue with Brunner’s office, arguing that central scanning is in essence a form of voter suppression.
“The lost votes are not spread equally across the population,” Robbins explains, “but are disproportionally high in low-income and minority wards.” In the 2004 election, says Robbins, up to 6.5% of voters in some Cleveland wards had their votes thrown out due to the type of errors that are often corrected in second-chance voting. The research on the topic is persuasive enough that in Stewart v. Blackwell, the 6th Circuit Court ruled that central scanning violates equal protection laws.
The loss of an average of 2% of the ballots may not seem like a significant number, but Robbins points out that John Kerry lost the 2004 Ohio election to Bush by a margin of 2%.
Brunner’s plan for Election Day Vote Centers, in which five to ten precincts would be combined in a single polling place, also troubles activists. Changing people’s polling places, Robbins says, results in a loss of about 3% of registered voters, and more among traditionally underrepresented populations. He says that research suggests that changing the polling place will disproportionately affect the poor, elderly and women -- populations less likely to have their driver’s licenses or their own transportation.
Eisner worries that Brunner is not concerned enough about the need to make elections more transparent to the public. She says Brunner hasn’t explored several obvious avenues for improving voters’ confidence in the fairness of the voting system, including establishing better procedures for recounts and allowing outside observers to witness how votes are counted and recounted.
Brunner “keeps implying that we’re moving away from electronic voting, but optical scan machines are still electronic voting,” Eisner points out. “It is made by the same companies (who make the DREs) and run by (proprietary) software that we can’t see.”
Cuyahoga County’s challenge
If Brunner has her way, all Ohio counties will use paper ballots and central optical scanning in the November election. But she’s put Cuyahoga County in the tough position of implementing the new -- and untried — system in time for the March primary.
Eisner doesn’t really think it’s possible. “The CCBOE has been pushed into a state of overwhelm,” she says. Director Platten, whom The Plain Dealer described as “swamped,” admits that she has “hundreds of tasks to check off” her 365-item to-do list. “And of course, I want it all done now,” she told The Plain Dealer.
Given the time frame, Robbins thinks it would be more realistic to phase out DREs slowly. “I’d rather have the risks of DREs” than risk using election practices “that will suppress low income and minority votes,” he says. Even with the DREs’ flaws, “there are all kinds of things you can do to reassure the public that the count was honest and accurate,” like routine independent audits of election results.
“I’m really sad for CCBOE,” says Eisner. “They are intelligent, hardworking, caring people … and have made such huge strides.” Any negative outcome of the sudden switch to paper ballots “needs to sit on the secretary of state’s shoulders, not on the CCBOE’s.”
Important election dates
Mon., Feb. 4 - Last day for Voter registration and change-of-address forms must be received by the CCBOE by 9 p.m.
Sat., Mar. 1 - Applications for absentee-ballot must be received by noon.
Tues., March 4 - Primary Election Day. Polls open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Absentee ballots must be received by the CCBOE by 8:30 p.m.
Make sure your vote is counted:
•Be registered in the precinct you live in. Check your voter registration.
•Go to the correct polling place. Check your polling location.
•Take ID to the polls. Acceptable forms include a current Ohio driver’s license; a military ID; current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government-issued document with current address. If you forget to bring ID, you can still vote by provisional ballot.
For more info:
•Cuyahoga County Board of Elections
•Ohio Secretary of State
•Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition
•Ohio 2004 as a Lesson in What Can Go Wrong
•The EVEREST Report