Electomachine

Optical scanner? Same ol', same ol'

Tailpipe was feeling as clean and serene about next year's election as he does after one of those high-pressure undercarriage baths down at the Rubber Ducky. Mysterious undercounts? Disappearing data? Spooky voting machines? All gone. For Election 2008, those unreliable "touchscreen" machines have been warehoused; most Florida voters will use "optical scanners." Paper, folks. If there are any doubts about the accuracy of the vote next year, the optical scanner can spit out a paper trail.

Then 'Pipe met Paul Lehto, a Washington state lawyer who used to specialize in business law and consumer fraud. Lehto is cofounder of the national voting rights group Psephos; the word means "pebbles," which were the kinds of ballots used by the ancient Athenians. After meeting with a dozen citizens in Margate last week, Lehto responded to Tailpipe's rosy prognostications with a look of dolorous sympathy.

"I can say right now regarding the 2008 election [that] there's no more basis for confidence in the results than there was in 2000," he said.

For Lehto and other activists, the rub is the impenetrable secrecy of the count. As election officials all over the country went to computerized voting in recent years, they opted for black-box vote-counting over the old eyeball system. What communities got in return for apparent efficiency they lost in verifiable accuracy, Lehto says.

"Votes are counted in complete secrecy now," he says. "The numbers pop out of a box." Citizens have relinquished their ownership of the process to private corporations. You have questions about how the machines came up with the final tally? Sorry, the manufacturers say, our methods are proprietary.

Picky, picky, Tailpipe thought. Those who protest are just displaying juvenile cynicism, aren't they? Voters have already got assurances from the companies that make the machines — and from the public officials who spend millions to buy them — that the vote-tallying software has "the most advanced security features in place," as one company put it, to protect the system from hackers and criminals.

All the conspiracy theorists should give us a break, the 'Pipe opined. We've got manufacturer assurances, and we've got the paper trail that's going to keep things on the up-and-up.

But then this old auto part recalled that there had been similar assurances from manufacturers in 2004 — and some peculiar results, especially in Ohio and Florida. And he recalled the time a year or so ago when critics of electronic voting demonstrated how a voting machine could be hacked by anyone with minimal computer skills and a determination to steal an election. And they weren't targeting touchscreens: It was optical scanners that were hacked by those smart-aleck computer prestidigitators, like computer scientist Harri Hursti, who manipulated a Florida optical scanning machine on camera for an HBO documentary last year.

The ability to produce paper records is no defense against election saboteurs who could put a vote-stealing virus on optical scanning machines, Lehto points out. And paper-producing machines offer the additional drawback of false confidence, he says.

Now comes new information about the company that manufactures Broward County's voting machines, Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Nebraska. Its machines, which are used in 22 states, have frequently been cited for data errors and other failures. An investigative television report by Dan Rather for the HDNet, "The Trouble With Touchscreens," found shoddy workmanship in the manufacture of ES&S machines produced in a Philippines sweatshop. Rather's investigators interviewed workers from a plant in Manila who told them they had concerns about the quality of ES&S's Ivotronic machines but were under pressure to get the job done in time for the 2004 election. Well, weren't the machines tested before they were shipped? Oh, yeah, the factory workers said. Some of the machines were given a "vibration" test. One worker demonstrated, picking up a machine and giving it a healthy shake.

About 20,000 Ivotronics have been shipped to Florida. So at least some of the machines that will probably register the wrong candidates or no candidate at all in Broward County are operating without loose screws.

If this doesn't faze you, you should note that the Broward County Commission has already voted — unanimously — to give ES&S a no-bid $5 million contract for optical scanning machines. As of this writing, the commission was scheduled to vote this week to earmark funds for ES&S — to the consternation of voter-rights groups.

Can we stop this train?

Unlike Palm Beach County, Broward has declined to include a citizens advisory committee in making decisions about the machines, voter-rights activist Ellen Brodsky says.

Deputy County Administrator Pete Corwin says the decision to stick with ES&S was sound. "The scanners are just one piece of the system," Corwin says. "If we switched companies, we'd have to go back to square one." Among other things, the county would have to replace ES&S's devices to assist the visually impaired, at a cost of $2.4 million.

Brodsky says the Broward process is undemocratic. "My main objection," she says, "is that there were never any public hearings on the issue. We never had the opportunity to discuss and debate." Without questioning the ES&S hardware and its ability to do the job, the county is signing a blind-faith contract, Brodsky says.

Without faith, what is there? Skepticism, disbelief, distrust of the system — precisely the qualities that an efficacious electoral system needs, Lehto says.

"Faith and trust have no part in American government," he says. "Checks and balances do. The best elections are when the parties [counting the votes] distrust each other and are watching each other like hawks." The only reliable system is the old one, with mutually suspicious parties counting paper ballots one by one.

Remember, just because the ballots are paper doesn't mean the ballot box can't be stuffed.


Tranny Shield

Not everybody was thrilled about a measure before the Oakland Park Commission last week protecting the rights of transgender people. Mike Benson said he almost fell out of his chair when he read the announcement in the newspaper.

Were they serious? Was Oakland Park — his city — really going to protect the rights of gender identity for city employees? He was trying to raise kids here, for Chrissake!

Benson, a short former firefighter in a red T-shirt, spoke before the vote.

"When I come to pay my water bill and there's a man dressed as a woman, how do I address this person?" he asked. "I think it will be very difficult for me and others if a guy I work with all of a sudden [comes] in wearing makeup. How am I supposed to work with this person?"

A woman in a swirly purple tank top stood up and demanded to know what this would mean for public bathrooms. Who would use which? What would this cost the city and the taxpayers? (Answers: whichever bathroom they wanted... and nothing.)

Commissioner Suzanne Boisvenue, who proposed the amendment, wasn't budging. Commissioner Allegra Ann Murphy broke it down for Benson and others, including members of Transgender Equality Rights Initiatives (TERI) who had lobbied for the measure.

"I'm a victim of discrimination," said Murphy, who is black. "There was a time when Caucasian people were afraid of people of my complexion moving into their communities... What you don't understand, you fear. We don't want to discriminate against anyone."

Then Oakland Park joined 100 or so other American cities in voting for transgender protections.

TERI cofounder Jacqui Charvet, in a red-and-white polka-dot dress and strappy heels, beamed.

The answer to all those questions raised by critics of the measure? The sight of Charvet and her festive group seemed to suggest it: Welcome to the 21st Century.


Marley & Him

Look up lucky bastard in the dictionary and you'll probably find a picture of former Sun-Sentinel scribe John Grogan. Homeboy wrote a memoir about his pet Labrador retriever, and it went on to shock the publishing world by becoming the bestselling hardcover nonfiction book of 2006. Marley & Me took the overall top spot on Amazon.com and spent 77 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 23 weeks at number one. And all this without a peep of promotion from Oprah.

So you can bet this rusty cylinder, visions of a lush retirement dancing in his head, will be in the audience taking notes when Grogan swoops back into town to speak at the National Writers' Workshop at the Hyatt Pier 66 Hotel this weekend. (The 'Pipe has one mighty adorable bichon frisé!) Grogan was kind enough to give us a call before his visit.

Tailpipe: Let's be honest here. How much of your success is due to the fact that you're a great writer, and how much is due to the fact that the picture of Marley on the cover is really, really, really, really cute?

Grogan: That's the million-dollar question! But seriously, if a story's not good, people are not going to pass it on or recommend it. People read my book and come back and buy 12 copies as Christmas presents.

And you've also adapted the book for children?

I have two spinoffs — one for 3- to 7-year-olds, the other for 8- to 12-year-olds. I don't think Marley & Me is appropriate for kids — some of the marital scenes and content. I like to think of it as a story not about a dog but about a couple. The dog is part of the mix of the couple's journey through life.

And now, on top of all that, the book is also being made into a movie with Owen Wilson playing you and Jennifer Aniston playing your wife. Do you look like Owen Wilson?

Not at all is the short answer!

So are you a millionaire now?

I'll let you draw your own conclusions. My wife and I live in the same community, our kids go to the same schools — but we did buy a 1790 stone farmhouse on 20 acres of land outside of Philly.

Sweet. So what's next for you?

I'm writing a memoir about growing up in Detroit in the '60s and '70s.

Did you inhale?

Happily.

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