Lawsuit asks states to hand-count votes
November 10, 2007
By Daniel Barlow Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER – A new federal lawsuit is calling on Vermont and the 49 other states to hand-count all the ballots in the 2008 presidential election out of concerns that electronic vote-counting machines are unreliable.
Machines that record a vote or count one are not transparent and are open to error, human fraud or even hacking, according to the 100-page lawsuit filed in federal court in New York State.
The goal of the 50-state suit is to force election officials to use paper ballots and to count those ballots by hand for the November 2008 presidential election. Vermonters do not vote electronically, but some local election officials do use computers to tally votes.
"Only a manual count of the ballots that have not been out of public view will provide 100 percent assurance that all voters have cast an effective vote – that is, that all votes have been properly and legally counted," the suit reads. Vermont officials say electronic vote recording devices aren't used in the state and hand-counting has its own drawbacks, including tallying errors.
The lawsuit is the latest effort by election activists to stem the tide of computers and machines used to track and tally voting results, following questions of accuracy in how some states counted votes in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The New York State-based anti-tax group We the People Foundation and the conservative voting rights group Citizens for a Fair Vote are behind the massive lawsuit – but three Vermonters, David Cole, Gary Gale and Owen Mulligan – have been named as the local plaintiffs.
Mulligan, a part-time massage therapist and political activist from Burlington, said fair and accurate elections are a cornerstone of democracy and he is worried that the machines used by Vermont election officials are prone to error or fraud.
Hand-counting ballots may be a long process and prone to possible human error, he said, but at least Vermonters will know that a technological error did not miss their vote or that the machine was compromised by someone looking to shift an election.
"There is no way to know that 100 percent of all the ballots are accurately counted," Mulligan said. "But when you weigh the pros and cons, it seems clear that hand-counting will ensure a more honest result."
Of specific concern for activists are election machines manufactured by Diebold, Inc., an Ohio-based company that has come under fire amid allegations that their products are unreliable and can easily be breached through electronic attacks.
Diebold – whose chief executive famously promised to "deliver" Ohio's electoral votes to President Bush in the 2004 presidential election – does manufacture the vote-counting machines used in some communities in Vermont, but a different vendor programs them for the state, according to William Dalton, the deputy secretary of state.
About 60 percent of Vermont communities used Diebold optical-scanners to tally votes, Dalton said, but all voting is still done on traditional paper ballots, which are kept by election officials for months after an election, unless there is a specific challenge to the election results.
"We have random audits done on the machines," Dalton said.
Meanwhile, the other 40 percent of Vermont towns tally their local results by hand, he added. Vermont could switch over to counting all ballots by hand, he added, but that would extend vote-counting for 2-3 days past the election and the state would need to hire vote-counters instead of relying on volunteers.
Dalton warned that hand-counting ballots can lead to its own election confusion, using the example of last year's race for state auditor, which first gave a narrow victory to incumbent Randy Brock before challenger Thomas Salmon was found to be victorious in a statewide recount.
"In doing the recount, we found that the mistakes were made in communities that hand-counted their ballots," Dalton said.
Mark DiStefano, the assistant attorney general who will defend the Vermont Secretary of State's Office in the lawsuit, said Friday that he had just received a copy of the complaint and is reviewing it, but declined further comment.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com
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