Contents: UU World Back Issue

Don't hand democracy over to computers

by Teresa Hommel

I was worried about the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) from the first time I heard about it. Would its requirements for creating statewide voter lists, and for some voters to show ID at the polls, be used to disenfranchise voters? In June 2003 a friend from my church, the Community Church of New York, suggested I attend a HAVA forum. That's where I found out about another problem: computerized voting. Some panelists started arguing about whether computers needed to be audited, or whether we should “trust” them. I was having conniptions just sitting there.

I have worked with computers since 1967. I have worked for Fortune 500 companies, the Department of Defense, and state and local governments. In all these years, I have never heard of anyone trusting a computer. I have never heard of a computer system that was not audited. In fact, one common definition of computer security is “the results of normal operation have been proven correct by independent audit.”

At the forum a blind panelist said that blind voters and other voters with disabilities needed computerized voting in order to cast a private and independent vote. He said that disabled voters would not be able to verify a paper ballot printout, what is called a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). The idea of VVPAT is that the computer prints a paper ballot with the voter's choices, and after the voter verifies it the ballot goes into a locked ballot box to be used for counts and recounts.

I knew the blind speaker was wrong. I have worked with successful computer professionals and engineers who are blind or disabled in various ways. They use assistive devices to read computer screens and computer printouts. And I was shocked, because if the panelist knew about assistive devices to read the screen, then he would know about assistive devices to read paper printouts—data-to-voice scanners. You put the paper on the scanner, and a voice reads it to you through headphones. Why wasn't he demanding the use of such devices?

The panelists kept arguing, and finally I couldn't sit still. I jumped up and started telling them what they ought to know:

Computers that are auditable, as well as accessible to persons with disabilities, have been in use for decades. If computers made for voting don't have those capabilities, someone has made a political decision, not a technical one. Computers are error prone and always need to be audited—to have their results independently verified—one way or another. In the professional world of information technology, no one “trusts” computers—because even after years of daily use, computer systems comparable to voting systems are still producing errors, and you only catch these errors when you perform the audit.

At the forum, people told me about two events in July, a hearing on voting systems in New York City and a voting security conference in Denver. I felt that in some way I was being called to speak out. I could speak with the authority of personal experience about computers, the need to audit them, and disabled people's accessibility to computer printouts. And conveniently, most of my industry was being off-shored, so I was mostly unemployed and could work on this full time. I became an activist.

Three days later, I distributed my first flier at church. Since the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride March was also that day, I made fifty packets—my flier and the information I had gathered at the forum—and distributed them at the Pride march to elected officials and political organizations. I got to speak personally to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and New York State Senator Liz Krueger.

Then I went home and started working on a teaching demonstration, a voting machine simulation program called the Fraudulent Voting Machine, nicknamed Fraudo. I used Fraudo when I testified before the New York State Task Force on HAVA Implementation. I asked the commissioners to come down from the dais and vote. One of them voted twice and said he had always wanted to do that. When fraudulent results came up on my laptop screen, it was just like in the movies. People jumped up from their chairs, pointed their finger at the computer, and screamed, “Hey, that's wrong!”

Fraudo is on the Internet now, at In the last year I have shown the demonstration before dozens of church groups, unions, senior citizens groups, and good-government organizations. Community Church has been with me all the way. We formed a Task Force on HAVA Implementation with six members. The congregation voted unanimously to endorse a statement of principles on voting systems that was created by the New York State Citizens' Coalition on HAVA Implementation. Other churches have been involved too. A member of the Ethical Culture Society of Queens, New York, Bill Hagel, gave me a new projector so I could present Fraudo to any audience anywhere.

Much of the discourse on electronic voting machines has revolved around false issues that sound legitimate only if you don't know very much about computers. Issues like “accessibility versus auditability” and “are unaudited computers trustworthy?” distract us from the real questions we need to be asking: Given that elections are partisan and adversarial, that there is enormous motivation to cheat, and that the only way to achieve integrity is to conduct elections in an open, observable manner, why are we being sold a mechanism that conceals the recording and counting of ballots? Given that democracy relies on the belief of the people that elections are honest, why are we turning over the heart of our elections to an unobservable, unverifiable mechanism?

In June 2003 , I thought all we needed was to fix up the voting systems with printers so they could print the VVPAT — the paper ballots that voters could verify before casting them and that could be used to perform an audit.

But as I talked to legislators and election directors, I came to understand that no one intended to do the audit even if they had the VVPAT. Yet ballot reconciliation is like a retail cashier or bank teller proving out their register at the end of the day. It's the only way to discover whether the computer is working correctly, or whether other irregularities have occurred.

People talk about “surprise random recounts” of a tiny percentage of jurisdictions, 0.5 to 5 percent. What if your bank only audited 5 percent of its transactions? I'd go to a different bank!

People say, “We don't have the resources to count ballots by hand or by optical scanner,” or, “We bought these machines so we can turn over these tasks to them.” When I hear this kind of talk, I hear people saying that democracy is too much work.

These objections show that we have given elections a low cultural, fiscal, and personal priority for too long. They reveal that the number of people involved in conducting our elections is very small, that they don't know us and we don't know them, and that we are not in community with the people who are running our elections or the people who are running our government.

I have sensed a contempt for democracy, for citizens who vote and those who don't, and for election-day workers. Perhaps it arises because not enough people are devoting their time and energy to sustaining the infrastructure of democracy. When people participate, there's no problem. For example, I spoke with a town clerk in Vermont, a state that uses paper ballots and easily counts them by hand. She said, “When the election is over everyone shows up with coffee and donuts, and we count the votes. It doesn't take long, because we have a lot of workers.”

There are several federal bills to require verifiable elections. When I lobbied in Washington for the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, HR 2239 and S 1980 , which would require VVPAT and 0.5 percent recount, I heard, “There's no political will to require a verifiable election in November, and there's no way you will pass legislation to require it.” Was the gentleman saying the political will here is to have an unverifiable election?

But I also heard, from a co-sponsor of one of these bills, “I got 50,000 telephone calls about cut-backs in Meals on Wheels, and I got seven e-mails for verifiable elections.”

It's clear that we need an outcry from the people of this country demanding verifiable elections. We need to make phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and personal visits to legislators' offices. There is a toll-free number to call Congress, (800) 839-5276 . People need to contact their state legislators as well as their state and local boards of elections. Decisions about voting systems and other election integrity issues will continue to be made after November 2004 .

Many Unitarian Universalists are working on this issue, and one of the rewards of this work for me has been to meet them. Alan Dechert of Granite Bay, California, is a magnificent speaker, writer, and clear thinker. He's president of the Open Voting Consortium, an organization that is creating open source software for voting systems and has designed a way to use computers in elections that preserves the human oversight that election integrity requires.

Heleni Thayre of Boston's Arlington Street Church is a passionate activist who sees electronic voting as the defining issue of the 2004 election. She started the way I did, talking to everyone about her concerns. As a member of her church's Voting Task Force, she invited me to Boston to conduct a workshop and then worked with David Butka and other congregational delegates to pass the Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) on electronic voting at the General Assembly in June 2004 . She designed the Web site to help turn the AIW into action. Heleni is working with members of other faiths to distribute literature and get letters signed. They have delivered thousands of letters to Congress urging passage of HR 2239 and S 1980 .

Long ago I studied the writing of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. In 1682 he said that if the people are good, the government will be good. But if the people are bad, no form of government will save them from their own evil.

In this November's election, about 30 percent of American voters will have voted on electronic systems that hide evidence of computer errors, prevent recounts, invite fraud, and hide evidence of it. What is our evil that we have ended up in this situation? I think it is our lack of community. We have not been participating. We have let ourselves be shut out. I am an example of that. When I first started on this quest, I didn't even know the names of my elected representatives. I had to look them up.

And we don't know how our government operates. What are the processes behind closed doors? We need to plug in to those processes to rebuild our democracy and its infrastructure.

First, we need to turn off the TV, radio, and CD player, and interact with people. We need greater engagement with ourselves, our families, our communities, and our civic structures.

Second, we need to rebuild the marketplace of ideas. Americans need to read, study, argue, find the gray areas. People seem to be hungry for the issues: Look at how many have seen the movies Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed . But our TV news is still focused on sports, fashion, and gossip. There are alternatives: My favorite news sources include American Progress Action Fund and Citizens for Legitimate Government.

Third, we need to learn to evaluate the claims made by candidates. If voters don't ask hard questions and look at past performance, we are not living up to our responsibility as citizens.

No one is going to serve us up a democracy on a silver platter. If ordinary people don't get involved in the day-to-day business of our government, if we don't learn the issues in depth, if we don't get in there soon, our democracy will not survive.

In regard to electronic voting, we need at least one person, group, or coalition in each county to learn the subject and prepare to carry the ball on the local and state level. A lot of people have anxiety about electronic voting machines, but we need knowledge, action, and involvement in depth.

Learn More:

Unitarian Universalists for Verified Voting
UUA voting resources: and
The Fraudulent Voting Machine
Common Cause
Making Votes Count, a series of New York Times editorials:
People for the American Way
Verified Voting Foundation
Voters Unite
Black Box Voting: Consumer Protection for Elections

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
: 13-15

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