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Steal This Vote: Andrew Gumbel on the Growing Controversy Over Electronic Voting Machines

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As the governor of Maryland calls for the state to scrap its electronic voting system and revert to paper ballots, we talk to the Los Angeles-based reporter Andew Gumbel on voting scandals and his book “Steal this Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America” [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to look at the continuing controversy surrounding electronic voting machines. Last week, the governor of Maryland called for the state to scrap its electronic voting system and revert to paper ballots for the upcoming November elections. Governor Robert Ehrlich said such a move was needed because of technical glitches that occurred during the state’s primary election earlier this month. In that election, electronic voting machines built by Diebold repeatedly crashed.

  • Andrew Gumbel, journalist with the London Independent and the author of “Steal this Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America” His latest article about electronic voting will be published in the Nation magazine next month.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Gumbel is with us now in the studio. He writes for the London Independent. His book, though, is called Steal This Vote. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ANDREW GUMBEL: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about the situation in Maryland right now.

ANDREW GUMBEL: Well, the Maryland primary earlier this month was a complete disaster. The state is run entirely on Diebold electronic voting machines, and they introduced a new element this time around, which was something called e-poll books, which was an electronic form of managing the data list of the voters themselves and marrying that list with the process of getting people to vote individually. It turned out to be a major headache.

On top of that, there were a number of huge bureaucratic mistakes, the most glaring one being in Montgomery County in suburban D.C., where the elections administrator forgot to include the smart cards in the packs that he sent out to the precincts, so effectively the machines were unusable. Voters were then given an emergency backup alternative of voting on paper, but the paper ballots ran out way too soon. The whole thing was just horrible.

And this is a symptom of a couple things. One is that these machines are largely untested and can’t be relied upon in a live election situation. And the other is that training poll workers and precinct officers to use these machines is a challenge greater than is reasonable in most circumstances. You know, Maryland is a very well educated state. There are plenty of people available who are willing to conduct elections, and yet they have made a complete mess of it.

The other very interesting thing that’s going on is the governor, Robert Ehrlich, who’s a Republican, came forward and said, ’Let’s scrap these machine, and let’s vote on paper in November.’ As a matter of practicality, that’s not going to happen, because there’s just not nearly enough time for that kind of shift to occur and for the election to run smoothly in November.

But what’s really interesting is it shows that the popular mood has shifted significantly and decisively away from electronic voting machines, and it’s not just in Maryland. Across the country, where voters are given the choice, which they are in some precincts, between voting on an electronic touch-screen machine and a regular paper ballot that’s then optically scanned, they are opting overwhelmingly for the paper option, which suggests they don’t trust the electronic machinery, they don’t believe their vote’s going to be counted properly. In some cases there are complaints that they don’t find the interface user-friendly for a number of reasons. This is a huge shift from a couple years ago where the mantra was, you know, computers are going to save elections in this country, and that’s been demonstrated now not to be the case.

AMY GOODMAN: For a long time Diebold was associated with Republican politics based in Ohio, the head of it — the former head of it saying that he was going to deliver the votes to George Bush. But you’re describing here in Maryland, it’s the Republican governor who’s saying ’Let’s do away with it.’ How did Diebold come to Maryland?

ANDREW GUMBEL: Diebold came to Maryland, because of, you know — in political terms, it was Democrats who pushed this through. It was the Secretary of State, John Willis, who is a Democrat, and it was the Maryland state legislature that approved it. Most damningly, actually, and most embarrassingly for Maryland, they commissioned a technical study in 2002 to find out the feasibility of using electronic voting, and the experts they consulted all came back and said, ’We’re not ready for this,’ and they ignored that completely, made an initial purchase of $13 million.

The following summer, two days after a group of computer scientists from around the country examined the Diebold software and found that it was riddled with security problems, two days after that, they approved an even bigger purchase of $55 million. I think they’re now up to $106 million worth of investment in Diebold machinery, and there’s been one study after another, a couple commissioned by the State of Maryland itself, and several since, that have repeatedly shown that the software is not properly written, that security is not only inadequate, it’s really not taken as a proper consideration, and on and on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Diebold — is Maryland the only all-Diebold state?

ANDREW GUMBEL: It’s one of two. The other one is Georgia, where interestingly it was also the Democratic political structure that approved it. My point in the book is that the real problem — some people have come to believe, because of the political affiliation of the heads of the voting machine companies, that this is a specifically Republican problem, that it’s Republicans that are somehow in cahoots with Diebold to defraud the voters. My argument in the book is if you look at the history of how this works and if you look at what’s going on now, the real enemy, as it were, is the two-party system, that neither party in the end is really interested in protecting the transparency and fairness of elections.

What they’re interested in is promoting their own political power base, and in the case of some of these officials in Georgia and Maryland and elsewhere, they believe they can make their careers by introducing electronic voting. And they didn’t care that they hadn’t done their homework properly and made sure these systems would work. And now, it’s coming back to bite them. And in Georgia, Cathy Cox, the secretary of state, wanted to run for governor. She was knocked out of that race in the Democratic primary. Other parts of the country, you’re seeing in Maryland now that the politically savvy thing to do is to be against these machines, not for them.

AMY GOODMAN: The Democratic Congressman Holt who has introduced, year after year, this legislation to have just a receipt, a paper record of the vote, where is that standing in all of this?

ANDREW GUMBEL: It’s pretty much stalled, but it doesn’t matter too much, because it’s been going state by state. And now you have a situation where in roughly half the states there is either legislation that’s been passed or is on the verge of being passed that would authorize some kind of audit trail, paper audit trail, for these machines. It’s not completely unproblematic, because if you don’t oblige the voter to look at the paper trail and if that paper trail is badly produced by the companies on thermal paper that fades very quickly, you have a situation where you don’t know if can you trust the paper trail either, which is very unsatisfactory.

And what you need is one of two things. You either need to vote on paper in the first place, which is what the paper ballots that are then optically scanned, that system, does — and everybody agrees who’s looked at this, that’s the safest system available on the market at the moment — or you need to come up with a new machine, where the computer would not just record the votes, but would actually generate a paper ballot that would be the ballot that could then be verified and checked afterwards if necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: You have an upcoming piece in The Nation magazine on voting. Can you talk about, well, perhaps the place most famous for voting scandals, Florida?

ANDREW GUMBEL: That’s right. And I’m going to spend a couple of days in Leon County in Tallahassee, the state capital, where the local elections administrator, Ion Sancho, who’s been on your show, he’s really one of the few, if not the only, election administrator in the country who really takes his job seriously and does it properly. And as a result, he’s been subject to considerable harassment by the state authorities and by the voting machine companies themselves, who earlier this year tried to freeze him out by refusing to sell to him. He overcame that.

But what’s very interesting in Florida and what he’s up against is that the state legislature, which is in Republican hands, has passed a number of very restrictive changes to the election rule that either provide for partisan advantage for the Republicans in one way or another or have made the process much less transparent, or both.

So, for example, you know, they said after 2000 in Florida, 'Never again do we want this kind of a mess with having to recount the votes and all this controversy about recounts.' What they have done is effectively made manual recounts impossible in Florida now. The only kind of recounts that are authorized at all is if, in a very close race, they’re going to look at the over-votes, which is when people appear to have marked their ballots more than once in a race, or under-votes, where they appear not to have marked their ballots at all, which is a very small fraction of the votes. And they’re only going to look at those. They’re not going to look at the rest of the votes. So, effectively, recounts are being outlawed in Florida, which is really stunning. And it’s not the only state that has taken measures like that. It may be the most extreme, but in Ohio, for example, it’s much, much harder now to conduct recounts than it was before. This is very disturbing for anybody who cares about voting rights, regardless of which party you support.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Gumbel, why would a Brit like you be interested or care so much about the voting machines of the United States?

ANDREW GUMBEL: I think because, you know, the United States has this reputation for being this towering democracy, and when you come here and see what it looks like in practice, it’s really shocking. And the other thing is, I don’t think most Americans until relatively recently had the slightest notion of how appallingly badly the system was run. And, you know, I’ve been in other parts of the world and been interested in pro-democracy movements. You come here and see this going on, and it just was something that I was drawn to, and no one else was writing about it that much, so I gave it a chance.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see any hope, in terms of this being improved?

ANDREW GUMBEL: I do, because I think people are becoming educated very fast. You have incredible energy among activist groups around the country on a very local level, sometimes at county level, sometimes at state level, and they are absolutely passionate about this. I was in Tennessee not so long ago, where there’s a group in Nashville that is absolutely on top of this. And they have come to understand that it’s not about blaming the Republicans in the state. It’s about getting ordinary Republican voters and ordinary Democratic voters together and to say to each other, 'We need a fair system for the sake of all of us,' and that kind of shift of thinking is now going on, and I find that very encouraging.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Gumbel, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His book is called Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America.

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