COLUMBUS, Ohio (CGE) – As elections go, so goes democracy. In Ohio, a battleground state that made an indelible mark in election history in 2004 it’s still trying to overcome when then Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell soiled elections that year when his role as the state’s chief elections officer was compromised by his partisan advocacy for his party’s president, George W. Bush, the turmoil over voting in the Buckeye State has abated somewhat, but remains ripe for controversy as the 2010 midterm elections, now only two weeks away, march into view.
One poor canary
One canary in the coalmine of Ohio voting making news this year that shows how fragile systems are, is the legal tussle taking place between the commissioners of one poor southeastern county and the small board of elections that finds itself short of funds to conduct a bare bones election. Charged by Ohio law to fund elections in their county, county commissioners in Morgan County, located in the heart of Appalachia in southeastern Ohio, have been taken to court by their small board of elections, who in a legal brief requested about $13,000 to conduct the General Elections now two weeks away.
Alison L. Cauthorn, special prosecutor for the Morgan County BOE, said in a telephone interview Tuesday with CGE that in the wake of a motioned filed on August 2 asking for an emergency appropriation, commissioners, at a hearing on Oct. 14, have “agreed in theory” to fund through the end of the year the necessary and proper expenses other than salary for the four board members, which were frozen by an interim judge. Cauthorn, speaking for BOE director Missy Fisher who said she wasn’t allowed to speak to the press on the matter, said, “I can’t say if the commissioners have the money, but everyone has hard choices to make, and one commissioner says he’s going through the budget to look because they need to pay for elections.” She said legal briefs, including one from the Ohio Secretary of State, are due on the 28th. Without the emergency funding, Cauthorn told one local newspaper that the BOE may have to lay off its two-person staff, rendering it without personnel to handle the upcoming election. But with briefs due in two weeks and Election Day on Nov. 2, the decision from appointed Judge John W. Nau of Noble County will arrive a week late.
What happens in a poor county in Ohio may not rock the world of voting, but it gives a tiny glimpse into the world of representative democracy, and it’s complexities and costs that even at a micro level can stymie the best laid plans of mice and men.
Respected election expert speaks out
One respected Ohio election expert who has worked in a variety of capacities for Ohio and national election improvements, has identified some positive areas, some that need further improvement and some negatives of voting in Ohio and around the nation.
Candice Hoke, a Cleveland State University law professor and the director of the Center for Election Excellence, told CGE that Ohio, by banning the electronic return of voted ballots from overseas and military voters, has taken a leadership position nationally for accurate and secure elections.
She said the Ohio legislature was prescience enough a half decade ago to have all votes cast on systems that provide a voter-verifiable paper record. Ohio earned a third gold star when a lawsuit settled between the Ohio Secretary of State and the League of Women Voters included requirements for post-election auditing, that would help ensure that the tabulation machines are accurate.
But some problems still require fixing. Among them, Hoke said is that a majority of Ohio voters still cast ballots on insecure DREs [Direct Recording Equipment]. The Yale Law School graduate who as a member of the Cuyahoga Election Review Panel investigated and published a lengthy report on the nationally notorious 2006 Federal primary in Ohio’s most populous urban county, said the insecurity of Ohio’s DREs, that are printer-jam-prone, “can jam up a recount, causing great expense to check the accuracy of the machine counts plus shaking candidate and voter confidence.”
Hoke is further leery about the lack of a high quality post-election auditing statute requiring post-election audits under the supervision of the State Auditor rather than from the Secretary of State. Her concern is giving quality assurance from someone without an institutional conflict of interest. Unfortunately, she said, Secretary Brunner’s protocols have been overly expensive and cumbersome. In addition to not being compliant with best practices in post-election auditing, they are issued far too late in the election cycle. She said the League settlement “is not a satisfactory conclusion for voters’ rights to transparently accurate elections.” In addition to the fact that it expires after 2014, Hoke said it covers very few of the State’s elections, for example, it does not require audits of State primaries, local elections, issues and contests.
Hoke, who was an original member of Brunner’s Voting Rights Institute advisory committee, said Brunner has not provided an independent audit of the Statewide voter registration system, nor has she provided any reason for confidence that the database has been “re-architected by professionals who are qualified to assure its data and system security, accuracy, reliability, usability and auditability.” She also declared early voting to be a good thing.
Then there are the negatives. Early voting for 35 days is far too long, Hoke said, noting that it imposes intense burdens on counties to ready ballots and election procedures far earlier, that creates a span of time that is far longer than in most other early voting States. She said narrowing the time period of early voting for 10 days is a better balance of costs, security, and convenience.
While other states are dabbling in expanding absentee voting by mail, Hoke argues that doing so raises the prospects of vote buying and fraud, and increases the possibilities of duress and coercion within the home or nursing homes. “We should use early voting centers for early voting (supervised by election officials), and permit absentee voting by mail for a circumscribed set of reasons,” she said.
“I believe Ohio’s voters and Ohio’s election reputation nationally would have been better served by the office of Ohio Secretary of State having prioritized the following: (1) assuring elections accuracy through systems and procedures that guarantee the public transparency and thus warrant public trust in the election results; and (2) conceived of the office of Secretary of State as a resource for the county Boards of Election, and sought to help them do their jobs better in all respects.”
Hoke, a research Team Leader in the California Secretary of State’s Top to Bottom Review of Voting Systems, said, “Sending out tardy Directives repeatedly and distributing federal Help America Vote Act [HAVA] funds to the counties in a miserly manner, while their election costs were skyrocketing because of federal mandates, were not ways to serve the public interest.”
View of the national scene
Sean Flaherty, Legislative Policy analyst for Verified Voting who spoke with CGE last week, said verifying elections is the emerging concern. With 30 states now having some kind of electronic return of voted ballots, from email, PDF, faxing of ballots or using Web portals, Flaherty said, “If you didn’t like paperless polling, touch screen with no hard copy records or using the Internet is that type of paperless voting on steroids.”
To demonstrate how easy it is to take over a supposedly secure Web portal, Flaherty described a situation in Washington D.C. in which a “white hat hacking” group in a small amount of time gained total control for a voting system thought to be secure. What surprised them even more, Flaherty said, was discovering that while they were breaking in, so were hackers from Iran and China. The lesson learned here is that a system supposedly considered secure by some may be a push over for others.
Jurisdictions that have paper ballots but who are not doing post election audits is worrisome, Flaherty said. Auditability helps alleviate concerns about private sector shenanigans, and conducting audits in public view will help defuse the public’s worst fears. Flaherty pointed to Michigan as a state that statewide uses optical scan paper ballot systems but has no systematic way to verify the vote.
And while HAVA has had its successes, notably making big leaps forward for voters with disabilities and reduced overvotes, Flaherty says more is needed. He says that voter education systems are needed for systems based on mailing ballots in, and that touchscreen voting is still insecure. As one solution going forward, Flaherty points to a bill sponsored by Rep. Holt bill that would prescribe precinct-based optical scan voting as the best solution so far.
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