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California Drops Diebold, Palast on Purging Minority Ballots

StoryMay 04, 2004
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We take a look at California State Secretary Kevin Shelley’s decision to ban Diebold electronic voting machines in four counties and we speak with investigative reporter Greg Palast about disenfranchisement and the presidential election. [includes rush transcipt]

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the use of Diebold’s new touchscreen electronic voting machines from the November election in four counties this past Friday due to security concerns and lack of voter confidence. Shelley also called on the attorney general’s office to investigate whether the Diebold committed fraud.

California had been one of the first states to react to problems with Florida’s punch-card voting system in the 2000 presidential election by moving entirely to electronic balloting in 14 of 58 counties. Shelley’s order brought that movement to a standstill and prompted some counties to ponder legal options.

In 2000, tens of thousands of African American voters were illegally purged from the voting rolls in Florida. Three years later Bush signed the 3.9 billion dollar Help America Vote Act–or HAVA, which allocates millions for purchase of new electronic machines. BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast finds that HAVA will in fact worsen the racial bias of the uncounted vote through computerization.

  • * Greg Palast*, investigative reporter with the BBC and author of the books 'The Best Democracy Money Can Buy' and 'Democracy and Regulation.'
  • * Avi Rubin*, professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the report "Analysis of an Electronic Voting System" the initial study of security flaws in voting machine software. He served as a judge in the Baltimore County primary election in March 2004.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!

AVI RUBEN: Hi, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the California decision, the decision of the Secretary of State?

AVI RUBEN: Well I think it’s very interesting. What’s interesting to me is that this action happened not because of security problems, per se, but because of the way Diebold handled the systems once they were in the field, putting unauthorized patches in, misleading people about what they were doing, it was more of their behaviour than the actual security problems which I think are just as big a deal. I think there are going to be ramifications for a lot of states. Ohio is one of the states that’s really on the fence right now, they’re purchasing electronic voting machines, but they still have many purchases to go, that they’re planning on making, that have been held up for awhile because of security concerns. And I hope that the California decision will sway them against buying these insecure DREs.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you mention Ohio. Isn’t that where Diebold is based, and isn’t that where the CEO of the company talked about how he will deliver the votes in Ohio to Bush?

AVI RUBEN: Yes, that famous — infamous statement that he made. The fact that Diebold is based in Ohio and has a lot of local influence has been something that I’ve heard about. A State Senator from there, Theresa Fedor, has been in touch with me and with other computer security experts, voicing concern that Ohio seems to be steamrolling towards using these machines. But they’re not the only ones — Maryland uses them almost everywhere, and Georgia uses them everywhere, and I believe in Florida there’s a lot of these machines, too.

AMY GOODMAN: How many states now? How many states have said they won’t use electronic voting? I was on a local station in Vermont, Community Radio Station WGDR, and a state legislator called up and said that they have banned the use of them there.

AVI RUBEN: It is starting to happen, it hasn’t happened in that many places. What I’ve heard are that some states are saying they won’t use them unless there’s a paper backup. Like a voter-verifiable paper trail along with it. I’m not a hundred percent sure about Missouri, but I have heard that there’s a movement in that direction there. I’ve heard that the Nevada Secretary of State has said that they will require voter-verifiable paper. I believe that New Hampshire only uses paper ballots, and that Oregon has strictly mail-in, which I think is a terrible idea because you lose all the benefits of private voting booths.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, there’s congress member Holt’s bill, which would just leave that paper trail. It would be a record of your vote, and he can’t get it passed.

AVI RUBEN: Yeah, he’s having trouble with that, getting it out of committee. It’s unfortunate because it’s a fantastic bill, it would require at the federal level that every voter would get to see a paper record of their vote, and that would be the authoritative vote. And also surprise recounts so that the machines would actually be checked. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not enough just to have paper ballots as backups for the machines, no one ever looks at them, and if somebody tampers with the machine, we’ll elect the wrong person. So we need to keep the machines honest and do these random spot-checks. Hopefully, there’s some activity in the next couple of weeks that will bring a lot more attention to the Holt bill. Tomorrow the Elections Assistance Commission is holding it’s first public hearing, and that’s destined to get a lot of press and a lot of attention, and hopefully they’ll be viewed as one of the ways that we can get out of this mess that we’re in. The following week, the House Committee on Government Reform is holding a public hearing as well, and they have a lot of people — vendors, computer security experts, and possibly even Rush Holt himself — will be testifying at that hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Avi Ruben, who is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, first exposed security flaws in the computer software in touch screen voting machines. We’re also joined by investigative journalist Greg Palast, who has just written a piece for The Nation called "Vanishing Votes", beginning, "on October 29, 2002, George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Hidden behind its apple-pie-and-motherhood name lies a nasty civil rights time bomb..." What is it, Greg?

GREG PALAST: Well, Help America Vote Act. As soon as the Bush family tells us, Amy, that they’re going to help us vote, I immediately start investigating. And what we have here is, under the guise of a reform, we have a prescription for another, basically a "Jim Crow" election. And one of the things, you know in the last election I discovered that there’s tens of thousands of black voters illegally purged from the voter rolls on the grounds that they were felons. You know, people listed with conviction dates of 2007, and 3007. That gave us the current guy in the White House. But now I’m finding something else. That’s going to be, by the way, extended, those purges, to all fifty states under the Helping America Vote Act. Now, there’s something else we’re finding. In the last election, I was working with the raw statistics from the Harvard University Law School’s Civil Rights Project and the United States Civil Rights Commission statistics. Rooting through that, it looks like we had 1 million — this is an astonishing figure — 1 million black votes were cast in the year 2000, and were never counted. Altogether, 1.9 million Americans, in the United States of America, to which we stand, so 1.9 million votes cast not counted, they were thrown away, they were called "spoil votes." And about half of those were cast by African-Americans. Now we discovered this — I was first investigating for BBC in Florida — and I stumbled upon this when I went to Gadsen County, the blackest of 67 counties in Florida, and 1 in 8 votes, it turns out, were simply thrown out, thrown into the dumpster. Never counted. And by the way, when I say "never counted", and "spoiled votes", votes don’t spoil because you leave them out of the refrigerator, you know, they spoil because there’s a stray mark that the machines couldn’t read. For example — and "stray marks" meant like writing in Al Gore’s name, circling Al Gore’s name. And so the blackest county voting solid for Gore, every stray mark including writing "Al Gore" meant your vote was thrown out. Now, I went to Tallahassee, the white county next door to Gadsen, and the white county, same ballot, and it’s not that white people are more fastidious with their pencils, but there were no votes thrown out. And I said, how could that be? And the answer was that they had the optical readers right in the precinct, so that if you made a mistake you got, they would say, oh you made a mistake, here’s another ballot. So in the white areas, throughout Florida it turns out, if you made a mistake on your ballot of any type, you got a new ballot. Black areas, you make a mistake on your ballot, into the garbage. The US Civil Rights Commission — I took it to Chris Edley of the US Civil Rights Commission — they did a much more thorough, precinct by precinct investigation. And after comparing the census figures for each precinct to the votes thrown in the garbage, they determined that of the 180,000 votes cast in Florida, 180,000 votes simply thrown away, 54% were cast by black people. That is, over half the votes, even though blacks only make up 13% of the population — to give you a sense of this — if you’re a black voter, you’re chances of having your black vote thrown out in Florida was 1000% higher than if you were a white voter.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us who Willie Steen is?

GREG PALAST: Yeah, Willie Steen, if you’re wondering, to kind of follow up on our story from 2000, remember there were, you know tens of thousand of black voters illegally removed, Willie Steen was one of them. And Willie Steen works — they were thrown out because they were felons and criminals, not supposed to be able to vote in Florida — Willie Steen was one of these. He works in a hospital, unlike our president he served in the military honourably four years, and he was on the Bad Guy list. Needless to say, he was black. And the state of Florida agrees completely that he has never been convicted of a crime. His name is Willie Steen, there was someone else named O’Steen, Mr. O’Steen from another state that was convicted of a crime. They removed Willie, and even today, after the NAACP won a lawsuit settlement from the state saying "we will return these people back to the voter rolls", Willie Steen is still not registered. Of the tens of thousands of people, tens of thousands of black people that have been removed, they’re making them run through a whole Jim Crow gauntlet, they’re making people who they even admit already are innocent, have to give them fingerprints to get back on the voter rolls. I mean, it’s quite an operation.

AMY GOODMAN: You say the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote, but it did not guarantee the right to have their ballots counted. And in 1 in 7 cases, they aren’t.

GREG PALAST: Yes, now that’s very important. When I just, after going through the raw data, with the Harvard group and with the US Civil Rights Commission statisticians, working with their statistics, they gave me two plus two. I made, I added it up to four. And what we found out is that again, 1.9 million votes thrown away in America, 1 million were black people. Why? The conclusion was, after they went to Florida, Harvard University statisticians took it across the country, and were able to determine that "Florida is typical." That’s a quote. "Florida is typical." That is, a ten-to-one ratio if you’re a black voter, it’s ten times as likely that your vote will be thrown out for various technical reasons, like writing in "Al Gore" instead of checking his name, your vote will be thrown out than if you’re white. So every major election, we’ve had a 1 million vote Jim Crow thumb on the electoral scale. This is, by the way, where computers come in, and our professor from Johns Hopkins actually, reading his material, gave me some clue as to what we’re going to be looking for in 2004. Computerization is going to make the Jim Crow factor even higher than the million votes we had in 2000. The reason is, is the big danger, the big danger of computer voting, as the professor can tell you, is not even so much hacking in — that can happen, these machines are vulnerable, you know, change a Democratic vote to Republican — but the easy way to do it leaves no fingerprints or fixing it. Power failures. Unplug the thing. Static electricity. Crashes. In fact, we saw this happen. Katherine Harris, under Katherine Harris, she had ordered touch screen machines, installed in Florida. This was going to be the big fix for Florida. And they tested it out in Broward County. In the white precincts, all seemed to go well. I mean, we don’t know, because we don’t know what’s behind those black boxes, but in the white precincts in Broward County in Florida, 2000, the touch screen machines seemed to work well. In the black precincts, they couldn’t find the passwords, machines crashed, you called technicians, "sorry, we’re in the white precincts, we’ll get to you tomorrow," voters simply couldn’t vote, they were told to come back, votes were locked in machines. No one disagrees that in 2000 in Broward County, when they installed computer touch screen voting, thousands of black votes were lost. In other words, Amy, the computers worked perfectly. This is what we’re going to see around the country. And I want to tell you, here’s the ugly part of it, it is a bipartisan effort, because the worst so-called "spoilage", the worst blackout of the black vote, occurs in Florida, in Georgia, and Chicago, Illinois. Where a white minority democratic, leadership of democratic party keeps control of that party by simply not counting the black votes in their party.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to investigative reporter Greg Palast. Avi Ruben of Johns Hopkins, your comment.

AVI RUBEN: Yeah, I think it’s important to realize that the problems with voting technology cut both ways. And I hesitate to ever make this any kind of a partisan issue, because neither, anyone that wants to get elected to office, whatever party they’re in, needs to be concerned about our inability to trust the voting technology. And I think what we’re going to start seeing, up until now it’s been mostly, for some reason I don’t understand, a Democratic issue. If you look at Rush Holt’s bill, only recently have three Republicans signed onto it, whereas he has many, many, many Democratic supporters. But as soon as we have a Republican lose a very close race, that was done on an electronic voting machine, where there’s no record of what actually happened, I think we’re going to see a lot more support from the other party to try to get some kind of integrity into our voting equipment. Because, what we have now are these machines with no audit trail, no way to know what happened, and the minute there’s any kind of controversy, and anyone that’s been around elections knows that there’s always controversy 'cause there's a loser, and if it’s close, they’re going to think of many, many little technicalities that could have occurred to make them lose. And they’re going to want recounts, they’re going to want audits. And none of that’s possible, you just push a button and the machine will tell you exactly the same thing it told you before, and there’s no way to know what added up to give you that result.

AMY GOODMAN: Avi Ruben, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Professor at Johns Hopkins University, co-author of "Analysis of Electronic Voting Systems". And Greg Palast, investigative reporter with the BBC. His book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" has been newly released and updated. Thank you, Greg.

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