INTERVIEW BY ALLAN UTHMAN
The Brad Blog’s Brad Friedman on the hijacking of democracy, why a paper trail is not enough and the Democrats’ flawed remedy
Do you think that the Democratic gains in the midterm elections have had a deflating effect on the election integrity movement?
Actually, by and large no, and I’m happy to say that because I was concerned about that. I think it has had a deflating effect only in a very small respect, in that the general public out there—the folks who were terrified, “Oh, are they going to throw another election?” Those people have turned their attention to other things for the moment. But the election integrity movement as a whole is really making as much noise and raising as much hell as ever. And that is good to see, because the entire movement sort of came out of 2000, and then certainly 2004, and you had a lot of progressive folks, folks on the left who made it up. Now, mind you, there are a bunch of Republicans and libertarians and intellectually honest conservatives—when you can find them—that are in the movement as well, but by and large there’s a lot of progressives. And I did have those concerns, and it has not come to pass. In fact, in many ways it has made the fight a lot easier, because there was that notion, the sore loser, sour grapes notion that had always been used; “Oh you guys are just mad because you can’t win elections.” And now folks like that can say, “We won the election and we are still mad.” I used to hear that a lot: “You’re just an angry lefty who is angry that Kerry didn’t win,” and I always had to point out, “Well, frankly, I didn’t vote for John Kerry.” It has never really been about that for me. So I think that it has actually been good. I also think what happened in Florida-13 in many ways has been a godsend.
Tell us a little bit about the problems in Florida’s 13th.
I’ll give you the short version: Essentially, you’ve got a race decided by just 369 votes, and yet 18,000 votes completely disappeared. That’s a problem. And these are on paperless, touch screen voting machines. And when I say disappeared it means that 18,000 voters appear to have not voted only in that race, but only in that particular county—I think district 13 makes up about 5 different counties—and only on those touch screen DRE voting machines—DRE is direct recording electronic. So it was a huge undervote rate, some 15%, even higher in some precincts, and in fact, what the bad guys have been saying here is that they just didn’t want to vote; they were angry with both Jennings and Buchanan; it was a dirty campaign, whatever. It doesn’t bear out, because in fact the other counties in that same race had normal undercount rates in the same race. And even in Sarasota County itself, on the paper ballots, the absentee paper ballots, you had a normal undervote rate. So there really is no explanation for it other than something went wrong with those machines. And even the only expert to be put on the stand by the voting machine company, ES&S [Election Systems and Software], has admitted that were it not for problems with the voting machines, Jennings would have won. So, it’s pretty extraordinary and in one sense a bullet has been dodged in that the balance of the House was not hanging on that one race.
What kind of legal remedy is there for Jennings at this point?
There are a couple. There are two concurrent lawsuits in the state of Florida, one by Christine Jennings and one by voters that are essentially calling for a revote and they are fighting now to get the source code to those voting machines, and incredibly, the judge down there ruled initially that they could not have the source code because it’s the private trade secret of the company, which underscores pretty much everything that is wrong with this idea of private companies counting our vote with secret software so that we can never see what’s going on. That is one remedy; the other remedy is up in Congress, the Federal Contested Elections Act, where they can file essentially for a ruling from Congress, which constitutionally has the right to determine if members have been seated properly. They’ve currently seated Buchanan provisionally; they have the option to keep him seated, to remove him, to seat Jennings instead, or to remove Buchanan and seat nobody, in which case it would trigger a revote down there in Florida, which is probably the fairest way to do it.
Dianne Feinstein has asked the Government Accounting Office to do an investigation of the matter. She’s in charge of the Senate Rules Committee. Over in the house, [Juanita] Millender-McDonald is in charge of the House Administration Committee and she has made it clear that she would like an investigation and would like to see the plaintiffs down there in Florida get the source code to see what has happened. The state ran an audit; the audit itself had all kinds of problems. I’m sure you’re not surprised; it’s Florida, so there are a bunch of partisan Republicans on the committee, as well as the guy sort of overseeing the whole thing is the guy who certified those machines in the first place for the state of Florida. So, you know, he would have a bit of a stake in coming out with those reports saying everything is fine. So, that’s what’s going on, but it’s really good news, even though we dodged a bullet. Had George Allen decided to challenge his election in Virginia, we would have another constitutional crisis on our hands. So that’s how close we are with all of this stuff, that’s why it is so important that we get it right, and that’s why, though it’s good news that this is highlighting this issue, the bad news is that folks out there are under the impression that paper trails would have made difference down in Sarasota. Paper trails would have made no difference. We need paper ballots, not paper trails on these touch screen machines.
Because the undervoting wouldn’t leave a trail at any rate…
That’s right. The fact of the matter is that 18,000 voters failed to either notice or be able to change their undervote when it was right there in front of their face on the computer screen, so where these folks get the notion that they are going to notice it on a tiny little piece of paper, checking it a second time—where they get the idea that is going to make any difference is somewhat beyond me. And studies have shown that people don’t actually check those so-called voter verified paper audit trails, and remember, with 18,000 votes, all you need is 369 of those people not to have the time or interest to notice that there is a problem in that race for us to have the same result. So it is somewhat maddening, because I even see folks who I consider to be on the good side of this fight, Common Cause and People for the American Way and so forth, out there telling people if we only had a paper trail in Florida this would not have happened. Baloney.
Do you recommend a hand count?
No—well a hand count is fine, but optical scan works well enough if we have the proper audits of those optical scan ballots. But the key here is that you need a paper ballot. No matter how it’s counted, you need a paper ballot.
So you can go back and look at it?
Not just so that you can go back and look at it; so you can count it in the first place. I mean, that’s what’s remarkable, even about this new Rush Holt legislation [HR-811, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act], which I should mention I worked on with their office, and hopefully was able to improve it quite a bit. That said, I still can’t support it at this time, because it will allow for DRE voting machines, which means we will have ballots that are never counted. But it’s quite remarkable to ponder the idea that folks like me are actually fighting for people to be able to mark a ballot, and then to have that ballot actually counted, by anyone at any time. I mean, it’s like I’m trying to convince the Democrats to invent the wheel or something.
The undervote story in Florida contrasts nicely with one I just read on your site about New Mexico, that minority undervoting there dropped 85% when they started using paper ballots.
You bet, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to highlight that story when I got that information over the weekend. You’ve got these folks running around saying minorities are better served by touch screen. Well hello, this data tells you quite differently, so I was quite pleased when that came out.
I’ve read that these glitches nearly always skew Republican. Is that really true?
Well, they do, unfortunately. Not always, but quite frequently they do. I don’t call them glitches, by the way; I call them failures, and it’s a bit of a bugaboo of mine, because it’s always “glitches,” “hiccups,” “snafus.” But the reason these are happening is because we have a system where there is nobody, absolutely nobody minding the store. Nobody in America gets to test these machines from top to bottom. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Not the USEAC, the Election Assistance Commission, no one gets to test these machines that are used in our America elections. It’s an absolute scandal. This is secret software that is counting our votes in a public democracy. It an absolutely astounding thing when you look at it.
Now if this is true, why aren’t the Democrats putting everything they’ve got into correcting the situation? Why aren’t they bringing their full force to bear on this?
I have been digging and digging on this story and fighting with Democrats on this and fighting with Holt’s office on this. I recommend an article I wrote for Alternet.org called “False Choices in the Debate on Voting Technology.” It used to be the disabled issue: “Oh, disabled voters need to be able to vote privately and independently.” But that doesn’t explain why everyone else in the world has to use these DRE machines, and it doesn’t even explain why anybody has to use DRE machines, because there are also what are called ballot marking devices; these are essentially touch screen systems but all they do is print a ballot and then you take that ballot and count it with op scan, by hand, whatever you want. So those work equally well for disabled folks, so [DRE advocates] sort of don’t have that anymore. The latest argument, which is rather extraordinary, is this language minority issue, that somehow folks who don’t speak English as their first language are better served by touch screen than by op scan. It makes no sense. You can print out a ballot in Chinese or Vietnamese just as easily as anything else. But somehow or another these guys seem to be putting forward a rather disingenuous argument that minorities can read it on a touch screen better than on a piece of paper.
And as you said, the ballot marking software would work just as well for that anyway.
Yeah, if you had to do that. But the problem is, when you use any kind of device like that—and this is what we saw week after week in ‘06, the primaries and the generals—when those machines break down, legally registered voters cannot vote. These systems are disenfranchising—left, right, black, white, I don’t care—when they don’t work, Americans cannot vote. And this happened, week after week. We saw thousands, if not millions of people that this happened to. And remember, if you’ve got let’s say five touch screen machines in a precinct, if even one of them breaks down, now your line is going to be increased exponentially, and election day is a work day and so forth. So these machines are just disenfranchising, versus a paper ballot system. With an op scan system for example, you can walk in and vote anytime. Doesn’t matter. If a machine breaks down, it doesn’t matter. They can either bring in another machine or save the votes in a secure box until later. But with these DRE machines, when they break, you can’t vote, and that is just a brutal menace to democracy in my opinion, and that’s why a lot of the folks who had previously supported the Holt bill in its previous iteration—in the last Congress it was called HR-550—a lot of those folks have said, “Well, given what we have now learned in 2006, I can no longer support a bill that does not ban DRE systems, period.”
Why do you think Diebold has always been singled out, at least when this sort of stuff is mentioned in the media? Do you think that Diebold is any worse than ES&S or Sequoia?
No, I do not. I think that all of these companies should be ashamed of themselves, frankly. Their behavior has been atrocious. The amount of money that they are taking from the taxpayer to run our democracy without feeling that they need be open in any way, frankly, is a crime. And the way that each of them have lied in their own way about what is actually going on with these systems. I think Diebold has gotten most of notice likely for a couple of reasons, beginning with the statement by CEO Wally O’Dell, who is no longer there, the fundraising letter to the Republicans promising to deliver the state of Ohio to George W Bush—mission accomplished. So that certainly got folks to notice Diebold, and as well, they left their source code sitting out on a public Internet site, this great 150-year-old security company. So they were really the first one that folks were able to look at and see the code.
And there were those internal emails too that were alarming, about faking presentations and that sort of thing.
Oh yeah, and instructing Diebold how to lie about what they had done in California, where they were decertified. And of course, when people looked at their code, we saw all sorts of backdoors and holes. And in fact—this was something I broke at Brad Blog back in October 2005, and it was amazing that no one else reported this up until then: I have a source inside Diebold who I refer to as “Dieb Throat,” and this source pointed me towards a page, sitting right out there on the web at a Department of Homeland Security site, called the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team. They issued a warning in August of 2004 that there was a backdoor in the Global Election Management System, the central tabulator machine that is used in all Diebold systems, that allows a malicious person to get in there and change anything they want. No one reported that for a full year, before or after the election, in any of the mainstream media. The media coverage on this stuff has just been abominable. It’s only slightly better, but it’s still pretty bad.
It does seem to be pretty much the most important domestic story there is. It’s astonishing because it’s not even that I’ve seen many rebuttals or discrediting of these stories; they just don’t address it at all.
Well they used to, and in fact, I think the New York Times are in no small part responsible for the dearth of coverage. They came out with a story just after the 2004 election referring to people who were concerned about what happened in Ohio in ‘04 as “conspiracy theorists” and “left wing bloggers.” I don’t hear that a lot anymore. I do a lot of radio interviews and so forth on this. We used to get calls all the time; callers would call me a tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist lefty whacko. Interestingly, I think, through the assiduous work of a ragtag band of citizen patriots around the country, I think we have pretty well made our case. I don’t get a lot of those calls anymore when I’m on the air from folks saying that I’m a lefty moonbat. You can only get so many studies coming out from Princeton University showing on video that you can hack an entire state election in ten seconds before people start saying, “Oh yeah, maybe there is a problem here.”
At the end of the day, if you can’t throw the bad guys out, it doesn’t matter how much you want to argue about Iraq or health care or anything else. So that’s why I’ve been sticking to this one and I’m amazed that not just the mainstream media, but even the progressive blogosphere hasn’t been as good on this as I would have expected.
Believe me, I have not made a lot of friends in pointing out the concerns I have with the Holt bill and the fact that it does not ban DREs, dangerously. But I don’t think American democracy can well withstand another, third presidential election in a row that has a questionable result. I don’t think we can stand it. And as it stands now with this Holt bill, we are headed straight there. There is nothing in that Holt bill that will ensure that we won’t have another Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004. And whether I’ll be successful in changing minds there, we will see, but I couldn’t rest at night if I didn’t stand up and do something about it.
I read an alarming thing about Chuck Hagel, that he was the CEO of ES&S less than a year before his first election, and that ES&S counts all the votes in his state.
That’s correct. And he won that seat for the first time in like 20 years or something that a Republican had won that seat.
And it was considered an upset victory, right? He wasn’t leading in the polls.
That’s my understanding, yeah.
So what do you think the chances are that that’s crooked—that basically, Chuck Hagel shouldn’t be a senator?
Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve seen a lot of things that have raised my eyebrows, certainly, but unless I can absolutely prove something, I just don’t report it. As a matter of fact, I’ll go even further, I tell people, ‘don’t trust me; I’m not to be trusted, but neither is the AP or New York Times.’ If people were as cautious with them as they are with me, I think we would be in good shape. So it’s a long way to answer your question, which is to say yeah, I’ve seen a lot of stuff that’s really really troubling, but if I can’t confirm it and prove it than I wont report it. But it is worth mentioning for sure. And it is also worth noting that the Nebraska newspaper out there, [the Omaha World Herald], they have a huge ownership in this voting machine company. And questions have come up at various times, whether it’s the Hagel thing or anything else in Nebraska about the voting systems, and what the hell is a newspaper doing owning a voting machine company?
Do you think that HAVA [the Help America Vote Act of 2002] was a bad bill?
HAVA was a horrible bill. I did quite a bit of exposé work on that as well, connecting some of the dots. In fact, Bob Ney was the main author of HAVA. He’s in jail; he’s a felon; he can’t vote and we are stuck with his crappy bill. Bob Ney not only was the lead author of HAVA, but most notably, Bob Ney’s former chief of staff is and was the main Diebold lobbyist in congress, and he was involved with [Jack] Abramoff. Diebold had given [Abramoff employer] Greenberg Traurig money, so HAVA seems to be quite well tied into that entire filthy network.
I saw that [former EAC Chairman] Deforest Soaries kind of went AWOL recently.
Well, he went AWOL a while ago, and thank god. He stood up and said something about what a scam this EAC thing is, and we have really learned since then what a scam they are. And I think people went along with it with the best of intentions on that bill, but it was a horrible bill and that’s why it’s so important with Holt now that we get it right this time. The devil is in the details and I don’t want to see it become HAVA 2, and that’s where I think it is going to be headed unless some amendments are going to be made quickly to ban DREs.
It seems probable to me that these same people are going to try pumping as much money as they can into Democratic campaigns just to keep themselves alive…
Well, you would think. I don’t know if they are or aren’t in truth, although I will confess to being somewhat confused why Democrats are not just coming out and saying… hell, even Charlie Crist down in Florida, the new governor down there, said we need to get rid of the DREs and replace them with op scans. The fact a Florida Republican governor is ahead of the Democrats on this issue is mind-blowing.
It’s really something. To me, it’s the most confounding part of the story, now that the Democrats at least have the house, and you know, like you said, this is the story that underscores all other stories.
Well, I think they also don’t understand it. It is a tricky business; you get into DREs and VVPATs [Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails] and op scans and statistics and all this other stuff that really nobody wants to know about, and I think that most people in Congress don’t have any clue. He has 192 cosponsors on this bill, 191 if Maxine [Waters] drops out, as she has announced her intentions to do, but most of them don’t really know and they don’t know the difference between a DRE and an op scan. And it has allowed the office to run around and say, “Those people that want to ban DREs, they are insisting on hand counting paper ballots!” And that’s nonsense. I’m not insisting on hand counting paper ballots. But they’re using that to confuse people, and overall they are looking at the bill, they are looking at Rush Holt who has been on this now for several years, and they see that he is quite literally a rocket scientist, which is what he is. And they presume, “Well, this guy knows what he is talking about; if Holt says this is the way to do it, than this is the way we’ll take it. He knows his computer stuff; he is a rocket scientist, after all.” They are sort of trusting him. Why he is not making that step is a different issue, though. So I don’t want to imply that the reason that the Democrats are not doing this is because they are in bed with the voting machine companies. I don’t know. If they are, I will report it, that’s for damn sure, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it.
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