Sunday, December 19, 2004

Preserving Election Integrity Through Federalism

In March of this year, I became chairman of the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville. The appointment to the Board came by way of nomination by the chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Committee, Bob Hodous, with confirmation and formal appointment by the Circuit Court.

Electoral Boards serve in each jurisdiction of Virginia. The Boards consist of three members, two who belong to the current Governor's party (now Democrat Mark Warner), and one from the party whose candidate for Governor placed second in the last election. The Chairman and the Secretary of the Board must come from different political parties. So at the first meeting of the new Board in March, I was elected Chairman by my colleagues.

The Electoral Board oversees the office of the General Registrar and supervises elections. Virginia has frequent elections, with federal elections in even-numbered years and state elections in odd-numbered years. In 2004, Charlottesville had a Democratic presidential primary in February, a City Council election in May, and the general election in November.

In the weeks leading up to the November 2 election, a small number of Charlottesville voters (along with others around the country) began raising questions about the security and integrity of electronic voting systems. In an effort to address those questions, I prepared the article below. It appeared in The Hook, a Charlottesville weekly, on October 28 and in The Metro Herald in Alexandria on October 29. An abbreviated version of the article appeared in the online edition of The Free Liberal, a libertarian publication based in Fairfax, Virginia, on October 22.

(Charlottesville, Virginia) --- There is no such thing as a national election in the United States.

This may come as a surprise to many people, who believe that Americans will vote for president on November 2 in a national election.

Instead, there will be over 3,100 simultaneous elections taking place that day. When we aggregate the votes, the nation as a whole will elect a president and vice president.

This fact is important because this diffusion of elections is the best protection we have against voter fraud through corruption, intimidation, or -- the most recent worry -- computer hacking.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), federal elections are conducted locally by 3,140 counties and independent cities. (Only Delaware runs its elections at the state level.) In all of these thousands of jurisdictions, election rules are made and administered locally, in accord with comprehensive state laws and a few federal laws designed to guarantee that elections are free, fair, honest, and transparent.

The levels of protection are so numerous that even the most vociferous attempt to change the results of an election against the will of those who cast votes has an infinitesimal chance of success.

The most basic level of protection is that each jurisdiction -- each county or city or town with responsibility for conducting elections -- chooses and maintains its own voting equipment. In 1998, for instance, according to CRS, 410 counties used paper ballots; 480 used lever machines; 635 used punchcards; 1,217 used optical scan ballots; 257 used electronic machines; and 141 had mixed systems.

A new federal law requires that by January 1, 2006, each state and locality must meet certain standards that effectively prohibit punchcard technologies. Consequently, many jurisdictions have already purchased new equipment to replace those machines that made the terms "butterfly ballot" and "hanging chad" so infamous four years ago.

Most jurisdictions are moving toward electronic voting systems, using direct recording electronic devices, or DREs. These machines operate in a number of fashions, but the easiest comparison is to automatic teller machines (ATMs). Some of them use touchscreen technology, some use buttons, some use mouse-like wheels to move a cursor on a screen.

For all these technologies, there are numerous companies that build and sell them. Among these companies are Advanced Voting Solutions, Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Unilect Corporation.

The use of machines made by these various companies is distributed randomly across the United States. Neighboring jurisdictions are unlikely to buy machines and software services from the same vendor. In Virginia alone, 22 different types of equipment will be used in the 2004 general election.

Are these machines trustworthy? The Wall Street Journal's John Fund, who is highly critical of election security procedures, notes in his new book, Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (Encounter Books), that “in the twenty-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering.”

Even the most determined election-stealer would have to know what kind of equipment is in use by dozens, if not hundreds, of jurisdictions, in order to alter their hardware or software in an attempt to change the results of an election.

Supposing that a determined fraudster were able to get that information and figure out a way to hack into the systems; he also would have to obtain the assistance of those charged with maintaining the integrity of elections.

The number of election officials varies from place to place, of course, but to give one example:

In Charlottesville, Virginia, this flim-flammer would need the cooperation of the Electoral Board (currently made up of two Democrats and one Republican), the General Registrar (who is non-partisan), the technicians who service the voting equipment, the Chief Election Official and Assistant Chief in all eight precincts (each from a different political party), and the other Election Officials (who also represent the Republican and Democratic parties).

He also would have to involve the technician from Hart InterCivic who helps the Registrar set up the machines before the election, and the company's consultant who helps in the vote count after the election -- different individuals whose assignments vary from election to election and from client to client.

Moreover, he would have to gain access to sealed voting machines kept in a locked room inside the locked Registrar's office inside a locked City Hall Annex building, with 24-hour surveillance cameras monitoring him.

This means that to steal an election even in a small city like Charlottesville (with about 22,000 registered voters), effective election fraud would depend on a conspiracy involving no fewer than 25 people -- or more than 100 (when all the precinct-level election officials are included).

Multiply this by 3,139 other counties and cities across the United States, and you can see what a sisyphean task massive voter fraud would be.

Is every American election fraud-free? Of course not. Scattered reports of fraud occur after every election. While this fact requires vigilance, it does not undermine the substantial integrity of the electoral system across the nation. Reports of fraud are notable because they are so rare.

The integrity of elections in the United States is protected primarily by the most fundamental aspect of our republic: its federal character, defined by a dispersal of authority and choices made in a diffuse system of state and local governments.

We should remember this on Election Day when we vote, not in a national election, but in one of 3,140 elections for President of the United States.

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