Dan Rather Report Examines Problems with Touchscreen Voting Machines

August 14, 2007

by Warren Stewart, Verified Voting

Dan Rather Reports - The Trouble with Touch Screens - Watch Video

Transcripts & Documents from the report

In a provocative one hour report aired on HDNet on August 14 entitled “The Trouble with Touchscreens”, Dan Rather examined issues of quality control in the production of the ES&S iVotronic and questioned the events that led to the proliferation of touch screen voting machines after the contested 2000 presidential election.

Beginning with the extraordinarily high undervote rate in the 2006 election for Florida’s 13th Congressional district, Rather investigated the facilities in which the touch screen machines used in that election were assembled. Surprisingly, the assembly plant was not in Omaha, Nebraska, where ES&S is headquartered but in the Philippines, where workers were paid $2.50 a day and worked in sub-standard conditions. The workers there observed that many of the touch screens themselves, which were manufactured in Minnesota by Bergquist Inc., were flawed but many were apparently used anyway to meet the production demands of ES&S.

Rather also interviewed an election specialist from Lee County, Florida who demonstrates the effect of a calibration error, showing that a touch on the screen intended for one candidate resulted in the selection of a different candidate. The election worker also notes the increased administrative burden of running elections with the touch screens.

ES&S has posted a response asserting that while the issue “would not have affected a voter’s ability to cast or record a ballot as planned” the affected machines were replaced with the replacement cost borne by Bergquist. They go on to say that voters would notice that the wrong candidate was highlighted in the Lee County demonstration and they could notify a poll worker (in the process, losing the privacy of their vote) and the machine would be replaced with one that was calibrated (meaning that polling places need extra machines, and/or re-calibrating a machine during election day is too complicated for poll workers to attempt). Of course, all those problems could be avoided completely with paper ballots, which don’t suddenly go out of calibration while voters are voting.

The fact that ES&S maintained and used a facility in The Philippines was apparently not disclosed to the Election Assistance Commission as required by new testing and certification procedures. The Commission now has given the manufacturer 30 days to disclose all its manufacturing locations. The company was less reluctant to disclose its Philippine connections in its bid for an electronic voting contract with the Philippine Commission on Elections, according to a report on GMA News.

In the second segment of the report, Rather turns to electronic voting advocate Michael Shamos. Shamos argues that mechanized voting machines were invented specifically to prevent paper ballot fraud, though he fails to note the countless examples of tampering and malfunction of lever machines over the years. Shamos then segues directly into computerized voting, observing that he has examined over 120 electronic voting systems. He agrees that poor quality control, cost-cutting business practices and lax or non-existent testing have led to a highly unreliable product. When asked what should be done Shamos uses an illogical analogy.

“Let's suppose we find a horrible defect in the Department of Agriculture's meat testing program. What do we do. Do we ban meat, even though we notice no one has gotten sick from it? Or do we simply improve the testing process. What I'm saying is we need continual process improvement on the testing process. What the activists are saying is we have to throw out the meat because we don't know if the test was good or not. I don't agree with that. We don't do that in society; when we find a problem, we fix the problem.”

Of course in the case of the analogy with meat, if a “horrible defect” has been found in the DoA testing, a recall of the suspect meat would ensue – and there have been numerous recalls of meat. We do throw out defective meat – sometimes millions of pounds of it. Products are routinely recalled when they are found to be faulty – why shouldn’t the same standards apply to the equipment that counts our votes?

Eating meat is also not a constitutionally protected right, while voting is. Meat is a commodity that is bought and sold, while votes are not - at least not legally - so comparing meat to votes is like comparing apples to fiberglass. In addition, consumers have a variety of choices as to what to eat, so if there are problems with bad meat they do have other options. In most cases, voters don't have other options -- if the particular type of voting equipment in use in their jurisdiction isn't correctly recording voters' votes, they can't simply vote somewhere else instead. So problems with voting equipment and the processes by which it is tested and certified are much more serious than problems with meat inspection.

Shamos goes on to recommend that Congress appropriate funds to engineers and researchers to develop a voting system that meets established standards and legal requirements. While this proposal has merit, it is hard to imagine the established voting machine manufacturers allowing that to happen.

After the introduction for the next segment of the report, a section of text appears in HDNet’s transcript but not in the video is worth noting:

It all sounds familiar, too familiar. Taxpayers being asked to throw out millions of dollars worth of voting equipment, start over again, and pick up the tab. With no guarantee the new equipment will provide a solution to the problems. Technology can often offer a solution to a complicated process, in this case, accurately recording votes. But technology poorly conceived, designed, integrated and tested is a recipe for failure. In this instance, subsidizing the same outfits that couldn't get it right the first time, giving them more chances could lead to the further waste of millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars. And just as important, the further loss of confidence in our nation's ability to use technology to provide solutions for mission-critical applications, none more important to our nation than accurately recording each of our votes.

Now, back to a core question: was the rush to these expensive and perhaps ill conceived new voting systems necessary?

This is the crucial question and it is curious that it was edited out of the video – but it is implied nonetheless.

The report then turns to the much-maligned punch card ballots that introduced the term “hanging chad” into the American vocabulary in 2000. Rather assembled seven former employees of Sequoia Voting Systems – the manufacturer that supplied punch card ballots for Palm Beach County to discuss their experiences leading up to the 2000 election. All the employees worked at Sequoia’s ballot processing plant in Exeter, California.

They all describe a change in the standard of paper being provided by Sequoia for punch card ballots and complain that the company thwarted their efforts at quality control. Apparently after relying for decades on paper from James River or International Paper, the only mills that had traditionally offered voting punch card stock, Sequoia switched to Boise Cascade, which had virtually no experience making tab card stock. The workers contend that the paper that they rejected as sub-standard would be returned to them weeks later with photo-copied Boise Cascade labels – in one case with notes that one of the workers had written on it when they rejected it – as if it were new stock. The workers were certain that the poor quality paper would result in problems on Election Day in 2000 – and of course they were right. Why would Sequoia ignore the concerns expressed by its employees about the quality of the ballots?

Greg Smith, who worked for Sequoia for 32 years as a pressman trainer, offered his opinion of the motivation behind the changes: “My own personal opinion was the touch screen voting system wasn't getting off the ground like that they, like they would hope. And because they weren't having any problems with paper ballots. So, I feel like they, deliberately did all this to have problems with the paper ballots so the electronically voting systems would get off the ground, and which it did in a big way.”

Rather failed to note that the following year, after an influential Cal Tech/MIT report advised that punch card systems be replaced with paper ballot optical scan systems, Sequoia funded a second study that agreed that punch cards should be replaced, but promoted the use of direct recording electronic voting systems. He could also have mentioned that Sequoia and ES&S bank-rolled California Proposition 41 in 2002, which resulted in $200 million in state funds for the “modernization” of the states voting equipment – much of which, of course, went directly to Sequoia and ES&S. The subsequent passage of the federal Help America Vote Act provided millions more for the purchase of touch screen voting systems, which are now used in over 30% of the nation’s polling places.

Rather’s focus on quality control in the manufacture of voting systems and his attention to the manipulation of the 2000 election debacle as a catalyst for the promotion of touch screen voting is welcome. Hopefully this thought-provoking report will encourage further reflection on the role of the voting industry on legislative and policy decisions.

Perhaps the strongest statement is saved for Rather’s concluding comments:

Agree or disagree, believe what they say or not. You decide, knowing that Sequoia contends that its ballots were fine. These workers are convinced that foreign ownership was part of the problem at Sequoia. They worry that overseas owners controlled the production of punch cards and the same will be true of optical scan ballots, as Sequoia remains a major supplier of ballots nationwide. What's more important to you: knowing that your vote is recorded as you cast it? Or the profits of voting machine manufacturers? It's an obvious question, but when citizens try to get to the bottom of how these machines, bought with your taxpayer money, either work or don't work, manufacturers continually hide behind the wall of "trade secrets." Are these machines that determine who decides our laws, who runs our states, and who sits in the White House with the power to direct our armed forces, no different from say the formula for Coca Cola, or McDonald's special sauce? We don't think so, and that's why we tried to get answers tonight and raise questions about accountability.

But, unlike Congress or prosecutors, we aren't armed with subpoena power; we can't force companies to prove that they take concerns about their machines and their ballots seriously. Their message is "trust us," but the information we have been able to obtain suggests that trust has not been earned, and that voting machines warrant, at the very least, much closer scrutiny than they have received so far. Because, as we heard Florida's governor Crist ask, " what could be more important in democracy than making sure that the right to vote is one that we can have confidence in?"

As state and federal legislatures consider steps to improve the election process, Rather’s report urges us to carefully re-consider the response to the 2000 election fiasco. Who benefited most from the Help America Vote Act and who will benefit most from current proposals – the voters or the voting equipment industry?