The Status of Ballot Box Access in Tennessee

August 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Fair Elections, Recent Blog Posts

Sample Paper BallotThe fact that Tennessee uses unverifiable electronic voting machines is enough to question the status of unencumbered access to the ballot box in Tennessee (Is every vote counted? How can we be sure when there is nothing tangible to recount?), but the August 5th primary election adds new unanswered questions to the mix.

Last week, the Tennessean asked me to write about elections for their Op-ed page. In a piece they titled, “Voters demand accuracy that TVCA offered,” I argue the merits of the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act,” paper ballots, and the ability to do an accurate recount of all votes in light of recent election day problems throughout the state:

There is one thing that unites all Ten­nesseans no mat­ter where they fall on the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum. Repub­li­can, Demo­c­rat, con­ser­v­a­tive, or lib­eral: We all agree that we deserve fair and accu­rate elections.

The proof of this asser­tion lies in the near-unanimous pas­sage of the Ten­nessee Voter Con­fi­dence Act (TVCA), a law that requires three steps to ensure fair and accu­rate elec­tions: 1) The use of paper bal­lots (counted by opti­cal scan machines) to record votes, 2) manda­tory ran­dom audits to make sure the OpScans are count­ing cor­rectly, and 3) the paper bal­lot is the “bal­lot of record” for recounts and audits.

In other words, the TVCA will give Ten­nesseans faith in the results of our elec­tions by giv­ing us tan­gi­ble and thor­ough tools to over­see, recount and ver­ify the results. Also impor­tant, espe­cially in these tough eco­nomic times, are stud­ies from mul­ti­ple states show­ing that paper bal­lot elec­tions would save our state money.

Unfor­tu­nately, imple­men­ta­tion of the TVCA was delayed until 2012 by a law that also gut­ted the manda­tory audit pro­ce­dures. Now, instead of a sys­tem that would ensure the integrity of our elec­tions, we are stuck vot­ing on paper­less elec­tronic touch-screen vot­ing machines.

So why would the TVCA have given us a bet­ter elec­toral sys­tem than the machines cur­rently in use?

There have been numer­ous and well-documented real-world instances in which the machines did not work prop­erly, includ­ing three dur­ing the recent Aug. 5 primary.

On pri­mary day in Maury County, one elec­tronic vot­ing machine precinct update caused vote totals to decrease, with some can­di­dates los­ing as many as 50 votes. On the same day in Hawkins County, the com­put­er­ized per­sonal bal­lot reader (PEB) that counts the votes counted all votes twice in five precincts.

Other prob­lems likely undetected

In Shelby County, numer­ous inci­dences of “vote flip­ping” were recorded, where vot­ers voted for one can­di­date by touch­ing the appro­pri­ate candidate’s name on the touch-screen, only to have another candidate’s name appear.

And these were only the prob­lems that were caught.

In addi­tion to ram­pant soft­ware prob­lems, many cred­i­ble stud­ies of these machines by com­puter sci­en­tists have found them to be vul­ner­a­ble to com­puter virus attacks and manipulation.

In fact, when asked what kind of machine they would use to run a trust­wor­thy elec­tion, most com­puter sci­en­tists say, “paper.”

Also crit­i­cal to any elec­tion is the abil­ity to con­duct a mean­ing­ful recount. A viable recount process is the only mech­a­nism to ensure that every vote is counted accu­rately and, as we have seen recently in the David­son County Dis­trict 21 Sen­ate race, is crit­i­cal to deter­min­ing the win­ner in a close election.

Microvote, the com­pany that pro­vides elec­tronic vot­ing machines to 45 Ten­nessee coun­ties, once described their prod­ucts’ recount fea­ture as “sim­ple.” So sim­ple, in fact, that the total dur­ing a recount never changes. Just press a but­ton and get the same total again and again — despite any machine-driven vote count­ing dis­as­ters like the ones in Maury, Hardin and Shelby counties.

Con­sid­er­ing the mal­func­tions in the past, “sim­ple” is not some­thing to be proud of.

All Ten­nesseans know we deserve fair and accu­rate elec­tions. The Ten­nessee Voter Con­fi­dence would have given them to us. Instead, we are forced to vote on machines that make us sure of only one thing: that we are unsure about the accu­racy of our elections.

In addition, the Tennessean’s editorial staff also understands the problems.

In his view, State Election Coordinator Mark Goins blames the recent election day problems on “human error” and focuses on the work they are doing to clean up the voter roles.

My question to Mr. Goins is, why can’t the State Election Commission do both – clean up the rolls and ensure that every vote is counted fair and accurately? Surely the two are not mutually exclusive?

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