Tuesday, September 06, 2005

On the Trail

By unusual coincidence, the Charlottesville Electoral Board and the Charlotteville City Council both had pre-scheduled, public meetings today. I presided over the Electoral Board meeting and spoke during the public comment segment of the City Council meeting.

The purpose of my remarks was to bring the Council's attention to the Electoral Board's views of some recent controversies. New readers may wish to refer to earlier articles on this blog, including "Preserving Election Integrity Through Federalism," "Clinton-Boxer Election Bill: So Bad in So Many Ways," "Washington State Vote Fraud Extends to Virginia," "Interesting Election Law Blog," "Carter, Baker Start Election Mischief Commission," and especially "(It's Only a) Paper Moon," "What's the Buzz?," and "Don't Be Cruel."

Mayor David Brown was kind enough to expand the time at the beginning of the City Council meeting meant for public comment so that all the people who signed up could be accommodated. I was, he said, "last but not least." Still, because of the 3-minute time limit on comments, I had to truncate my prepared remarks when I delivered them orally. Here are my remarks as I had prepared them:

Prepared Remarks of
Richard Sincere
Chairman, Electoral Board, City of Charlottesville
before the Charlottesville City Council
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

(These remarks were delivered on my own behalf and on behalf of my two colleagues on the Electoral Board.)

If we were to look back forty years ago, Virginians lived under a state Constitution that virtually and intentionally disenfranchised more than 90 percent of those people whom we would now consider to be “eligible voters.”

Poll taxes and literacy tests were only the most visible obstacles to voter registration and voting itself. While African-Americans were the main targets of these policies, poor whites, recently naturalized citizens, and others were also barred from voting.

Virginia was a one-party state in which the Byrd machine and the “courthouse crowds” in each city and county controlled the elections apparatus. The system was rigged from top to bottom. As few as 15,000 voters statewide could determine who the governor was, not to mention other statewide officeholders. Political scientist V. O. Key called the Virginia of that era a “museum piece” that preserved a political system controlled by the 20th century equivalent of plantation owners and their Jim Crow-era political cronies.

A lot has changed since then. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act removed literacy tests and other barriers to registration and voting. And the rise of a two-party, competitive political environment led to major reforms that transformed our state’s electoral system.

Today Virginia has a national reputation for clean elections. While every congressional and presidential election brings with it anecdotes and reports of voter fraud from all over the United States, very seldom does one hear such a report from Virginia. They are not completely unknown, but they are so rare as to be noteworthy and universally condemned.

Here in Charlottesville, we have been on the cutting edge in making the local electoral system efficient, effective, and responsive to the needs and wants of voters.

Charlottesville was one of the first localities in Virginia, for instance, to allow a “split-shift” system of morning and afternoon poll workers, something that has allowed us to expand our pool of election officials so that each polling place is fully staffed on every election day.

Charlottesville was the first locality to use high-school students as pages in polling places on election day, a reform adopted after we lobbied for permission to use these eager teenagers who are not yet old enough to vote and therefore ineligible to be election officials. We are now finding that former pages are joining the ranks of election officials, something most welcome since the average age of election officials in Virginia is about 73.

Even before the problems associated with the 2000 presidential election in Florida made headlines, Charlottesville was on its way to replacing outmoded punch-card voting machines with modern, easy-to-use, voter-friendly equipment manufactured by Hart Intercivic. The machines we use are known as eSlates, and we have used them in seven consecutive elections, beginning in May 2002.

Charlottesville voters have been quite happy with the eSlate system. We receive few complaints and, when we do, we see what can be done to solve the problems voters identify. For example, after the May 2002 election, we discovered that some voters thought the type-size on the eSlate ballot was too small. Working with Hart Intercivic, we found a way to make the fonts bigger and more readable in subsequent elections.

Charlottesville voters are confident in the security and integrity of our voting system. The Electoral Board has received no complaints about the lack of a so-called “paper trail,” except from an extremely small number of voters who have also carried their concerns to the General Assembly in Richmond.

There is a nationwide debate about this topic – the Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, or VVPAT – and it is clear that the lines are drawn between election officials, who know a great deal about the security measures and other policies that work toward guaranteeing the integrity of the electoral process, and a few self-described “computer experts” who seem to know little about the electoral process and a lot about fanciful scenarios involving hacking and software bugs.

At today’s meeting of the Electoral Board (September 6 2005), my colleagues and I discussed plans to increase the physical security of our voting equipment, which will include upgraded alarm and monitoring systems in the space where equipment is stored.

We also adopted, unanimously, a policy that states, in essence, that until certain technical and fiscal issues regarding VVPAT technology are addressed, we will not support legislative efforts to mandate untested VVPAT technologies in Virginia.

The Electoral Board also unanimously adopted a policy that says that, if Virginia law is changed to require the use of VVPAT with current voting equipment, we want Charlottesville to be a test site before such equipment is certified and implemented statewide. We want to be a part of the process of working out all the kinks – of which there are many – before such systems must be implemented statewide.
This issue is not going away. The debate is taking place all over the country; the General Assembly's study commission, chaired by Delegate Tim Hugo, will be meeting again in November to consider the options available to Virginia and make recommendations based on the testimony it has heard; and certain members of the Charlottesville City Council seem to have opinions that differ from the Electoral Board in regard to what should be required by state law. Stay tuned.

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