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.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Edmund Newton