Democracy in danger: Readers respond to Farhad Manjoo's "An Open Invitation to Election Fraud."

By Salon Staff

Published September 25, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

I shared Farhad Manjoo's article on electronic voting with my mom, who was a bit perturbed that our rush to embrace new technology sometimes tramples practical considerations like accuracy and fairness. In short, so what if new technology is faster? If the result is spurious, then the issue of speed is moot.

Anyway, I wanted to share part of my mom's response to me, wherein she recalled her mother staffing the polling station of sparsely populated Elliott Township, S.D. The old township hall sat alone on the prairie, with the nearest other building a half mile away. Yet despite the isolation and sparse population, the election was conducted according to the book. There's something refreshing and pure about democracy conducted in such a meticulous, scrupulous manner. To paraphrase a saying, "Ethics is what you do when no one else is watching." If only all our civic institutions could be conducted according to that principle: high ethics, even when no one else is watching.

Sorry to ramble. Here is the excerpt from my mom's letter:

"And so what is so wrong about paper and pencil? I know ... it takes a long time and humans can make errors. So? ... Grandma Christopher counted plenty of paper and pencil ballots. The results were usually not known until sometime the next day. I agree, there is a huge difference in population between Elliott Township and Orange County, but it could be an option if all the other high-tech creations prove unworkable. Gram also stood out on the wood step of the township hall with a bell. She rang it loudly and shouted to the wind: "The polls are open!" ... or "closed," as the situation dictated. Of course I was not old enough to vote, but I barely remember going with her and other ladies the day before to clean and scrub the hall and get it ready for the political process to proceed. People brought their lunches (not unlike those who work the polls today) and would snack and visit as the day and opportunity allowed. Gram always was diligent about curbing any "election"' talk within so many feet of the polls. People who had bumper stickers would sometimes be told to move the cars further away. I guess I don't know what the point of this trip down memory lane is, but there you have it."

Personally, I think the point of mom's trip down memory lane is that our sense of civic responsibility continues to erode, to the point where speed and poorly implemented technology are elevated above fairness and accuracy, and above our basic democratic rights and duties as citizens.

-- Chris Sonne

I sit up here in Canada and marvel at the technology you Americans possess and decry the crap we poor, backward wretches must deal with for our elections. No electric machines, touch screens and bright lights for us. No, we must make do with these things called "pencils" -- basically a twig of wood filled with graphite. They leave a sort of gray mark on this flat white stuff called "paper." We put the name of our candidates on the "paper" and we mark an "X" next to the name we want. It is very complicated and often takes a week of civics classes to learn how to do it. These pieces of "paper," now called "ballots," are then counted by volunteers.

And here is the problem: It literally takes two whole hours of counting before the results can be tabulated. Sitting around our black-and-white TVs, we Canadians often have to wait until 8 or 9 p.m. before they announce our winners. No flashy red and blue maps and Brokaw getting it wrong for us. And the cost in paper must be in the tens of dollars. Pencils don't come cheap either. And the rate of pencil theft is appalling.

So, it is with a sense of wonder and envy that I look to the south and marvel at your shining example of democracy and feel safe knowing that your technology will ensure four more years of peace, security and good government.

-- Kevin Hill

In his article "An Open Invitation to Election Fraud," Farhad Manjoo claims that the flaws that he found in the Diebold touch-screen system "are perhaps the best proof yet that electronic voting systems aren't ready for prime time."

I believe his claims about the Diebold system, but successful electronic voting systems exist elsewhere in the world. Brazilians vote completely electronically, using a system that has excellent security and does not even require the voter to be literate.

The system of voting in this country is stuck in 1960s. State and local governments have been too miserly to invest in this unglamorous but vital infrastructure. They need to wake up and join the 21st century.

-- K.C. Scarpinatto

Copyright law is becoming the last refuge of the scoundrel. First Fox News tries to thwart criticism of its faux news programs by citing copyright law, and now Diebold is trying to hide its questionable activities in the same manner.

-- John Mize

Seems like one or more secretaries of state who certify elections should hold a dry run on Diebold touch-screen voting machines before their next primaries. Invite hacking and see how far they get into the system, and whether or not the results can be changed. It's a lot cheaper than the alternative, low voter confidence in the results after the fact.

-- Michael Sadler

Salon has done a great job in reporting the problems with touch-screen voting -- particularly exposing Diebold. Bev Harris deserves the thanks of virtually every person in America who votes or who plans to vote in the future (assuming we still have a democracy). It is clear that the Republicans, or at least the right wing of the party, is determined to steal the election. Otherwise why would they be so opposed to machines that provide a paper trail?

I have always thought that the Georgia election was fixed. My guess is that Cleland won, but we will never know. My fear is that what happened there will happen all over the country. How can we fight back? Well, one way is not to use the machines. If your state or county has the new touch-screen machines with no paper trail vote absentee! I think we need a national call to all voters to vote absentee instead of using these awful machines. If the majority of voters of a state (or even within a county) vote absentee, that will tell the state that they should remove the machines that have no paper trail and force them to take a hard look at what they are doing. Perhaps Salon could start this national call.

-- Ranney Moss

Perhaps the question needs to be raised about why it is possible to have a Lotto system that manages and organizes millions of Lotto tickets to ensure against fraud, yet the most precious thing we have, the right to vote, cannot be similarly protected.

-- Greg Baran

I'm incredibly grateful to Salon for raising awareness of this issue. When I first heard it mentioned that defective, or even rigged, voting machines may have contributed to Max Cleland's fall in Georgia and Jeb Bush's win in Florida, I assumed it was a conspiracy theory with no basis in fact. Having now read this article and interview in Salon I feel significantly more afraid about the outcome of the 2004 election and whether it will be trustworthy. On the other hand, maybe this issue will now get some attention on CNN, MSNBC, and in the major newspapers, but as so often happens, I'll say, "Why are they so slow? I read about this in Salon weeks ago."

-- Christopher Waldrop

After being appalled by just about everything the Republicans have done since Election Day 2000, I thought I saw a glimmer of hope in the Dean candidacy and, especially, the poll this week showing all the major Democratic candidates competitive with the president in 2004.

Then I read the interview with Bev Harris. Apparently not content with running the company that supplied fraudulent names to be purged from the voter rolls in Florida three years ago, the Republicans have stepped up to supplying fraudulent voting machines. As Republican-owned-and-operated ChoicePoint did in Florida, Diebold lied to state officials about the security and accuracy of its product, failed to resolve problems it was fully aware of, and then launched a P.R. campaign to expand its market to other states.

Here's a radical proposal: If you are forced to vote using a machine that is not auditable and does not provide a paper receipt -- eschewing functions that should be legally required for this technology -- then vote by absentee ballot in all elections. At least you'll have a fighting chance to have your vote counted.

-- Dereck Daschke

Here in Ontario we are about to have a provincial election. We will go to a school hall, walk up to a friendly neighbor sitting behind a plain wooden table, who will ask our name and then mark that name off a list with a pen and ruler. We will be handed a slip of paper, walk behind a cardboard box set on a rickety table, take a nice sharpened pencil, and mark an X beside the name of the candidate of our choice. If we mistakenly put a check instead of the suggested X, it won't really matter as long as the voter's intent is clear. We will then fold the paper in half, walk back to the neighbor sitting behind the plain wooden table and hand her the slip of paper. We will watch while she puts it into a sealed cardboard box. Each of the parties with a candidate in the election will have a volunteer representative also watching that the single little slip of paper is put into the box.

Precisely at 8 o'clock, the doors to the school hall will be closed. The cardboard boxes will be opened by the electoral official in the presence of a representative of each of the parties. They will then be counted by hand under the time-honored method of being separated into little piles. Any ballot can be questioned by the party representative. Once the ballots have been counted, someone will phone the results in to the Elections Office. By 9 o'clock that same evening 7 or 8 million votes will have been counted and we will probably have a good idea as to who is the winner. By 11 it will all be over and we will all go off to bed.

Simple, cheap, easy, reliable. And incorruptible. But not very well suited to the United States, as no one will be making large amounts of money except for perhaps the vendors of pencils and little slips of paper.

-- Vicki Delany

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey has introduced legislation called the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003 (H.R. 2239) that requires all voting machines to produce an actual paper record that each voter can use to check the accuracy of his or her vote and that election officials can use to verify votes in the event of electronic malfunction, hacking or other "irregularity." The bill calls for this requirement to be in place for the 2004 election. The full text of the bill is on Rep. Holt's Web site. I urge anyone who is concerned about this issue to contact their representatives -- today -- and ask them to support this legislation.

-- Georgette Koslosky

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------