legal director for Voter Action and the founder of the National Voting Rights Institute.
Voter rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania seeking emergency paper ballots. The lawsuit was filed after Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State ordered counties to provide emergency paper ballots only if every electronic voting machine breaks down at a voting site. We speak to John Bonifaz of Voter Action. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: With the election less than two weeks away, Republican John McCain is intensifying efforts in Pennsylvania, a state no Republican has won since 1988. Many political analysts say that capturing Pennsylvania’s twenty-one electoral votes is key for McCain to win the White House.
While the Pennsylvania race is being closely watched across the country, concern is growing that the vote will be marred by long lines at voting sites and problems with electronic voting machines. The state has seen a record number of new voter registrations.
On Thursday a group of voter and civil rights groups sued the state to demand emergency paper ballots be distributed when 50 percent or more electronic voting machines become inoperable at any polling site in the state.
AMY GOODMAN: The lawsuit was filed after Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State ordered counties to provide emergency paper ballots only if every electronic voting machine breaks down at a voting site. The plaintiffs include the NAACP, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Voter Action.
We’re joined in our firehouse studio by John Bonifaz. He’s the legal director for Voter Action and founder of the National Voting Rights Institute.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
JOHN BONIFAZ: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Great to have you with us, John. Explain the lawsuit further.
JOHN BONIFAZ: This lawsuit is all about making sure the people are protected when they show up at the polls on Election Day in Pennsylvania. The fact of the matter is that these electronic voting machines have a long record of breaking down, not functioning on Election Day, apart from the issues around whether or not they can be counted as being accurately counting votes. But the — and in this instance, we’re dealing with a situation of long lines; with high voter turnout combined with that, we see a potential perfect storm impacting the right to vote. When machines break down, they cause these long lines, they turn people away.
One of our clients, Angel Coleman, is a single mother. She’s a grad student. She has a full-time job. You know, she showed up at the polls on Election Day during the primary in April. We were monitoring a national Election Protection hotline at the time, 866-MYVOTE1. And she found that the line was very long. She could not stay in line. She had to get on to work. She was told that two to three machines were down. And there was no indication when they were going to be back up. She had to make childcare arrangements later that evening to show back up and vote.
The bottom line here, Amy, is that people should not be forced to wait hours in line in order to cast their vote, and they should not be forced to go home and come back later. The right to vote is too important, too fundamental to require that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, you mention Pennsylvania. I lived in Philadelphia for many years, and I distinctly remember back in 1978, when there weren’t the electronic machines, there were the old Jamestown lever machines, and Philadelphia was infamous for breakdowns. In ’78, when Rizzo was trying to change the charter to run for mayor for a third term, all the machines in the black community were breaking down, and there was almost a riot on Election Day when the black radio stations called black people out into the streets to protest the fact that the polls were closing and thousands of people had not voted. They forced the election commission to leave the polls open several hours later for everybody to vote. But that was a near-riot situation. That was thirty years ago.
JOHN BONIFAZ: Right. Well, I think what we’ve come, from that point to today, is we’ve found that now we have these fancy computerized voting machines, twenty-four states using them, 45 percent of the electorate voting on them, in response to the debacle in Florida 2000 with the hanging chad fiasco. And we took a disaster of an election in Florida, and we made it exponentially worse. And these machines are unreliable. They’re insecure. California has decertified these voting systems, recertified them for only limited use. Florida and Iowa have shifted away from theirs. So has New Mexico, as a result of a Voter Action lawsuit.
But states like Pennsylvania and Ohio still have them in place. And the solution here has to be, aside from scrapping them altogether and going to optical scan paper ballot systems, is that in these counties — and there are fifty-four to sixty-seven that are using these electronic voting machines — we have to have emergency paper ballots on hand to be provided to voters when long lines develop because of voting machine breakdowns.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about vote flipping concerns we’re already seeing. I mean, people, millions of people, are voting right now in early voting.
JOHN BONIFAZ: That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what vote flipping is. And where is this happening?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, we’re monitoring two separate hotlines through InfoVoter Technologies, which has date streamed from MYVOTE1, 866-MYVOTE1, and from a hotline promoted by CNN, 877-CN-GOVOTE-C08 [sic.] — and 877 GO-CNN08, rather. And these hotlines are showing that there are vote flipping concerns already redeveloping in states like West Virginia, Tennessee and Texas, where people are showing up for early voting and finding that when they go to the process of voting for president of the United States, they’re punching the screen for Barack Obama, and it’s flipping to John McCain.
Now, these reports are not unusual, unfortunately. They are reports that we heard in Ohio in 2004. They’re reports we heard in Sarasota County, Florida in 2006 in a hotly contested congressional race, in which 18,000 missing votes occurred with a margin of victory of less than 400 votes between the two candidates. But what they do show, frankly, is that these machines cannot be trusted for accurately counting and recording our votes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Are there any reports coming in of people who are voting for McCain, and it’s flipping to Obama?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Not that we’ve seen yet. But, you know, this is a concern across the board. I mean, we’re a nonpartisan organization. We believe that the right to vote must be protected for everyone. But certainly, the fact is, is that when voters show up at the polls and are trying to cast their ballot, and they cannot trust whether their votes are going to be properly counted, that’s a fundamental democracy concern.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about privatized voter registration databases?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, what we see here is an outsourcing to private companies of key election functions, which not only includes the vote counting process of electronic voting machines, but also electronic poll books and privatized voter registration databases. We saw in New Mexico, for example, in the Democratic caucus in February, 17,000 voters showing up and having to cast provisional ballots, because the private company, Election Systems & Software, one of the big four —-
AMY GOODMAN: ESS.
JOHN BONIFAZ: —- election industry companies, ES&S, had created and maintained a flawed database. This is what happens when we lose public control and public accountability of the political process and when we essentially outsource to private companies these key election functions.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of what voters can do to assure that their vote is protected on Election Day, what are your recommendations?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, first, we think people should demand emergency paper ballots if they’re in these jurisdictions where electronic voting machines are being used. They should say they want that paper ballot option, and they want that emergency paper ballot, because that ballot enables one to conduct a recount or an audit. It is impossible, unfortunately, to conduct any kind of meaningful recount or audit using electronic voting machines. But a paper ballot system, you have the voter intent reflected in that paper ballot, even after it’s been scanned through an optical scan machine. We also think —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: But you’re not saying that they should demand a paper ballot instead of voting, right -— in case a machine is broken, you’re saying?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, we believe — I mean, at the first instance, people should demand a paper ballot, even if the machine’s not broken. And now, the lawsuit we filed demands that there be at least — after 50 percent of the machines — 50 percent or more of the machines go down, that paper ballots should be distributed. But, you know, in Ohio, they give a paper ballot option. People should exercise that option, up to twenty-five —-
AMY GOODMAN: Do those votes get counted?
JOHN BONIFAZ: They do get counted. And, in fact, in many instances, they’re better to be casting the ballot on the paper, far better, than to be voting on the electronic voting machine, where you have no idea whether or not it’s going to be properly counted. But, yes, of course they’re going to get counted. And voters should exercise those options where they have them. Counties in Colorado are going to be providing that option for some -— in certain counties, and they should exercise that.
AMY GOODMAN: How can you practice voting? That may sound odd, but we are seeing the largest number of new voters, I think, in history registered.
JOHN BONIFAZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: These machines are not easy or obvious.
JOHN BONIFAZ: No, they’re not. And, in fact, many poll workers unfortunately don’t even know how to work them and what to do when they break down. I mean, the other whole piece of this is when a machine breaks down, you know, arguably the machine should be taken out of commission, not waiting for a technician for hours and to come and then somehow fix it, when you don’t even know whether it’s actually been fixed.
But, you know, beyond that, there is this basic point that citizens need to be engaged in overseeing the political process and being vigilant about protecting the right to vote. That’s why we’re engaged with a national group of partners with us in monitoring this election, Watch the Vote 2008. And we really believe that citizen oversight is one of the true antidotes to encouraging and protecting the process.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, it means that citizens are engaged at the local level, that they’re monitoring their polling site, that they’re showing up when there are problems, that they’re responding to issues that they hear from either hotlines or from the local community, and that they’re demanding of their election officials greater oversight. Most of these states do not audit the process, and yet we audit our financial transactions, we audit other things of value. We ought to audit the most important thing of value, which is our vote.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m curious. You may not have the answer to this, but seeing as this problem crops up with so many other issues in American society, do you know to what degree the American companies that are producing these machines have begun penetrating the voting markets in other countries, in other words, in the third world and other places where they’re now voting with the same kinds of machines?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Some of these companies are engaged in doing that in other parts of the world. And, in fact, you know, there needs to be a full investigation of these voting systems companies. We’ve called for that. There is no real oversight at the federal level of these companies. They’ve marketed, frankly, a defective product in these electronic voting machines, to the tune of making billions of taxpayer dollars. The State of Ohio has sued Diebold, one of these voting machine manufacturers, to return the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars provided to that company for marketing a defective product in the electronic voting machine. And we ought to have Congress intervene here. If, in fact, these companies knowingly marketed a defective product, then that’s commercial fraud, and they ought to be held accountable for that, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: This latest news of ACORN revising the tally from a major national voter registration drive from 1.3 million, saying they registered, down to 450,000, and the whole attack on ACORN, with John McCain saying it’s the largest voter fraud perpetrated in American history.
JOHN BONIFAZ: This is a red herring. This is a total red herring. The fact of the matter is that, whether or not there are fraudulent voter registration forms being submitted by some people who decided they weren’t going to do the work and fill out “Mickey Mouse,” doesn’t mean that Mickey Mouse is showing up to vote on Election Day. There’s no evidence whatsoever, no evidence whatsoever, that that’s going to be happening. In fact, there’s very little evidence that any of these kinds of claims of voter fraud actually occur. When, you know, you look at the overall prosecutions on this, it’s 0.00001 percent of people actually are showing up and committing a felony right there on Election Day by saying I’m somebody that I’m not. It doesn’t happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you need an ID to vote?
JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, it depends on what state you’re in. I mean, in certain states, you do. And if you’re a new registrant, then you do in certain states. But —-
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of ID?
JOHN BONIFAZ: A photo ID, unfortunately, in some states. I mean, the fact is, is that some of these states have imposed a very restrictive requirement.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of photo ID?
JOHN BONIFAZ: You know, a driver’s license -— it depends. I mean, a lot of people don’t have them. And I think we’re going to see a lot of people not being able to cast a franchise because of those voter ID requirements. But here’s the bottom line, is that this election is only going to be decided by those who are able to access the ballot and to have their votes counted. If you show up on Election Day, you’re eligible to vote, you’re supposed to be on the voting rolls, but you’ve been purged, you’ve been taken off, and you don’t get a ballot, you won’t decide this election. And if you show up on Election Day, and you vote on one of these voting machines that doesn’t possibly count your vote, then you won’t decide this election. So, whatever polls are out there, the most important point is, is that it gets decided by people who are able to vote and have their votes counted.
AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, thanks so much for being with us —-
JOHN BONIFAZ: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —- legal director of Voter Action, also the founder of National Voting Rights Institute, actually ran for Secretary of State of the state of Massachusetts. Thanks so much for being with us.
JOHN BONIFAZ: Thank you for having me.