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A Deafening Silence as Democracy Expires

by BRIAN BARRY

“This is a brilliant strategy by Sequoia Voting Systems. All elections are now perfect by design. If you eliminate the ability to detect or prove fraud in an election, then you can claim that all elections are free of fraud.”

I’ve always wondered what sound Democracy would make if it died.

On Tuesday night, I found out in Santa Clara, California. The sound it makes is a deafening silence, and it sent chills up and down my spine. This sound scared me more than anything I’ve ever heard in my life.

That night I experienced the illusion of casting my vote on a state of the art touch screen “DRE” (direct recording electronic) computer voting system. The poll workers were helpful and showed me how to vote. However, when I asked them a detailed question such as, who is the vendor that makes these voting machines, all I got was a blank stare. Do you have any information on these machines? No answer. I had to examine the machines myself to find out who made them. I didn’t know that my most basic question was going to be a rhetorical one.

The particular model I went through the motions of voting on was an “AVC Edge” with a software (firmware) version of 4.2.4 (according to the label on the back), manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, California. However, the software version number displayed on the touch screen was 4.2, not 4.2.4. (Should I be concerned that the software running didn’t match the label on the back?) You can even view a demonstration of how the AVC Edge works on their company web site.

The poll worker politely programmed a smart card for me with my political party affiliation. I inserted the card into the voting machine which started the voting process. The voting machine displayed my choices to me based on my political party and I made all my choices very easily by touching the screen.

I didn’t make a single mistake.

After I completed making all my selections, the screen displayed this message: “Touch Here To Cast Your Ballot”. So I did.

Then the machine displayed this message:

“Recording Vote. Please Wait.”

A couple of moments went by, then the machine displayed this final message:

“Vote Recorded, Thank You”

I waited for the output. Nothing happened. Ok, I guess I was done voting.

It would have been a wonderful experience except for one thing. There was something missing. Something very important.

There was no human-readable, physical evidence that my vote had been captured and stored the way that I had intended. Sequoia claims that my vote was stored inside that machine, but there was no way to verify this. Since there was no physical voting document produced, there was also no way to recount my vote if the election was ever disputed.

Why wasn’t the machine creating a punched card showing my vote selections? Why wasn’t the machine printing a sheet of paper that could be optically scanned showing how I voted that I could read myself to verify that it recorded my choices correctly? Where was that physical output that would be used to actually count my vote and that would also be used during a recount if one was necessary. Without the physical output, how could anyone ever do an audit?

Human monitoring of the step between capturing of the votes and counting of the votes has been eliminated and instead has been placed under corporate control.

This is a brilliant strategy by Sequoia Voting Systems. All elections are now perfect by design. If you eliminate the ability to detect or prove fraud in an election, then you can claim that all elections are free of fraud. Sequoia says on their web site that “No other company can match Sequoia’s pedigree and reputation for accurate, trouble free elections.” How could anyone ever prove them wrong?

Fraud-free elections. That’s one less thing to worry about.

The last step in my voting exercise came after the polls closed. The poll worker opened up the voting machine from the back and removed what looked like a flash card (like what you put into your digital camera). The flash card said “128 MB” on it, which is a large storage capacity. This is like an electronic floppy disk and anyone in possession of it can modify its contents. Why did they choose a medium for storing the votes that can be modified?

When I was done voting, nothing came out of this “Direct Recording Electronic (DRE)” voting machine. But I had completely misunderstood the purpose of this exercise.

The purpose of this voting exercise wasn’t to capture my vote.

The purpose of this voting exercise was to demonstrate to me the power that corporations now have to control the entire voting process from the capture of my vote, to recording it, all the way through the counting process. If the voting machine modified or deleted my vote, would anyone notice?

One company now can do it all. They have the Holy Grail. I was impressed but also horrified by this display of power, because unfortunately, that also means we no longer live in a democracy.

If the voting machine had generated a human-readable physical document showing my vote selections that I could visually verify, then hand carry over to the poll worker and hand to them and say, “here is my vote”, I could then watch them place this vote document into a sealed and locked box, just like they did last fall when they were still using punched cards.

I’m not interested in a printed receipt to take home with me showing how I voted. This isn’t a grocery store. I don’t need to be convinced that the voting machine has captured my vote. I already saw my vote selections on screen. What I want to know is that my vote gets counted unmodified.

If the voting machine had captured my voting selections into a physical form that I could then verify and that I also knew, and this is the important part, that I also knew would be used to count my vote and would also be used in a recount if that were required. It’s important that the physical output be used in the normal process of counting all the votes, not just used only if there’s an audit. If the voting machine had been designed to do that, well then I would say, what a great improvement on voting this was. How much easier it is now to vote.

But that’s not what happened. Nothing came out of the machine.

The voting machine sat there silently, without even the soft hum of a fan to remind me that it was a computer.

I was supposed to trust that this voting machine, which is a physical expression of the intent of the Sequoia Voting Systems Corporation to make a profit, was going to take good care of my vote.

Democracy isn’t about trust. Democracy is about distrust.

It’s ironic that Sequoia’s web site quotes Winston Churchill’s remark he made in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy didn’t just die last night in Santa Clara, California. It was silently strangled. The noise was deafening. Was I the only one that heard it?

Brian D. Barry is an activist and computer scientist interested in democracy living in Silicon Valley, California. He can be reached at: bdbarry@aol.com

 

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