North County Times

Aug. 12, 2007



Paper ballots necessary to preserve democracy


By: KEN KARAN - Commentary



Buttons reflect the dissatisfaction of protesters gathered outside the secretary of state's office in Sacramento before a public hearing on July 30. One week later, Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified several electronic voting systems, including the Diebold system used by San Diego County. Opponents of the technology say that electronic voting machines are too easy to tamper with, and favor instead hand-counting of paper ballots. Associated Press



In a dramatic move, Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified San Diego's Diebold electronic voting machines. While that move brought relief to defenders of democracy, those not so enamored with the will of the people found some relief in her offer to recertify the machines once conditions are met. But, the conditions are appropriately rigorous given the security required for elections.


Because the machines were not designed to be secure, and because election officials refuse to implement procedures necessary to mitigate the risks of that design, meeting the conditions for recertification will be difficult, if not impossible. This means that San Diego County officials must decide whether we will return to the use of touch-screens to cast and secretly count votes, vote on a tangible ballot that is also counted by secret software whether mailed in or not, or return to the most transparent and democratic method of elections and hand-count tangible ballots. Whatever direction we take regarding electronic voting after Bowen's decision, the bloom is off the rose. The emperor has no clothes.


Bowen's review of Diebold's products has revealed that they cannot be trusted with our votes. The decision to remove the risk of tampering from our elections is forcing San Diego County citizens to re-evaluate whether the convenience of computers justifies the risk to liberty. More fundamental than whether the machines can be made secure is the revelation of what can happen when elections are outsourced to the highest bidder or biggest campaign contributor. In a market-based model, elections are a commodity to sell. While the deal-makers profit, citizens are removed further and further from the process. Eventually, citizens come to believe that their right to participate in the tradition of self-government is limited to showing up at the pre-appointed time to press a button.


Secret vote-counting concentrates power in the hands of those who own the counting process. Removing citizens from the process of verifying elections undermines the very underpinnings of a democracy, which require that power must be dispersed to citizens. The alternative is tyranny.


The e-voting experiment will not end quietly. Vendors and officials are working feverishly to salvage their credibility after years of touting the security of the machines. The vendors are attacking the investigators for undermining confidence in their defective products. The county is trying to maintain its iron grip on elections by ensuring secret vote-counting continues in the guise of optical scanners. After all, three members of the same Board of Supervisors that brought us the e-voting fiasco are facing re-election. Honest elections create uncertainty in those depending on them for power. To protect Diebold's interest in getting paid and the county's control over elections, look for the board to cut a deal with Diebold whereby the county abandons the touch-screens and buys Diebold's optical scanners at the same price as the more expensive touch-screens.


At the center is Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler, who is in the unenviable position of having to prove to county officials that the products she sold them when working for Diebold are what she said they were. And she has to prove to citizens that she is representing their interest in verifiable and secure elections. But if successful, it only serves to confirm that Seiler is still looking out for her former, and possibly future, employer. Already calls are out for Seiler to recuse herself from any deliberations concerning what to do about the Diebold contract. If Seiler has her way, most voters will be mailing in their ballots to be secretly counted on Diebold's opti-scan. But a more enlightened Bowen may end that possibility by recognizing the risks inherent in that method, too. And the possibility has also been floated that registrars may just ignore Bowen's orders and continue perpetuating the fraud.


If the decertification of Diebold machines means the end of secret vote-counting and a return to paper ballots counted by hand, the sky will not fall, chaos will not reign and the terrorists will not follow us home. Instead, printers will print ballots, voters will mark and verify them in one simple process, and they will be counted in view of citizens. Any concern that a system of paper ballots is more prone to tampering than electronic voting is wishful thinking on the part of Diebold's supporters. Imagine a top-to-bottom review of a paper ballot system. How many secret processes would have to be investigated? None. How many worse-case scenarios would have to be imagined? About five, compared to the 120 ways to rig e-voting. All that's needed with paper ballots for security is to keep your eyes on them, and to create an impregnable chain of custody.


E-voting forces citizens to abdicate responsibility for the functions of a free society. Thomas Jefferson taught that, "the qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training."


The right to self-government is unalienable, but the act itself must be practiced. One habit required for self-government is being mindful of the importance of elections as an experience, a celebration, and not a chore. Being an adult demands taking responsibility. Responsibility for some things cannot be delegated. We cannot delegate responsibility for making choices like whom to marry and whether to have children. We cannot delegate responsibility for the crimes we commit. We cannot delegate responsibility for practicing our religion. And, we cannot, in a democracy, delegate responsibility for choosing the government we are empowered by our Creator to create.


To ensure democracy, the people must take responsibility for the one institution that renders all other institutions subservient, our elections. It's a burden, but it's a burden unlike any other because it makes us free. Secretary Bowen's decision to listen to reason and not special interests is our invitation to reclaim our place in government as the nation's founders intended by taking responsibility for our freedom.


Ken Karan is an attorney in Carlsbad and co-founder of Psephos , a local elections watchdog group.


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