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New Federal Money Will Lock In Next Wave Of Voting Technology

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A bill awaiting the president’s signature with $425 million in new funding for voting machine and infrastructure upgrades has drawn mixed responses in elections circles—victory claims, tempered praise, and renewed worry.

The federal funds build on $380 million allocated in 2018 for cybersecurity, which included training state and local election staff, modernizing state voter registration systems, and joining a federal program that constantly monitors election system computers for attacks that could disrupt or corrupt voting.

Election administrators welcome any new funds to upgrade their systems, as congressional appropriations are a historic rarity. But the appropriations bill omits new security requirements, even as the new funds will be spent on voting machines and systems to be used for many years.

“Let’s be very clear about this. More money for election security is good, but it is *not* a substitute for passing election security reform legislation that Senate GOP leadership has been blocking all year,” tweeted Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat and Intelligence Committee vice chair.

Election transparency activists are particularly skeptical—not because many states and counties need new and better voting systems, but because federal funds will be helping to buy expensive and problematic systems where computer-generated ballot summary cards replace hand-marked paper ballots.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” wrote lawyer-turned-activist Jennifer Cohn in the New York Review of Books. “Voting machines that make it difficult or impossible to detect hacking can leave voters susceptible not only to stolen elections, but also to false claims of election-rigging. That is a high price to pay for unnecessary electronic pens.”

What concerns her and like-minded activists is not just that new ballot-casting processes may lead to ballot-counting controversies, but also that the new voting machines—called ballot-marking devices—take longer for people to vote. Many states and counties will debut these systems in 2020’s presidential primaries and use them again in November’s state and federal elections.

“All of the BMDs [ballot-marking devices] have led to much longer lines,” said Susan Pynchon, Florida Fair Elections Coalition executive director, citing delays in recent elections in Georgia and Pennsylvania. “It’s a civil rights issue. People waiting for a voting machine instead of a [marking a ballot in a voting booth]… I don’t know how many people will leave.”

When Michigan debuted BMDs in its 2018 primaries, up to 25 percent of the machines in some precincts jammed during the first hours of voting, the Michigan Election Reform Alliance’s Jan BenDor recalled.

In other 2019 debuts and test runs, other issues surfaced, Voting Booth has reported. Computer touch screens recorded wrong votes. There were sudden voting machine shutdowns. In one Pennsylvania county, the vote-counting software omitted most of one candidate’s votes at the tabulation stage.

The new federal appropriation allows states and counties to spend funds on new voting systems as long as they create a paper record of the votes cast. However, the legislation ducks the question over what constitutes a paper record: a hand-marked ballot or ballot summary card that’s printed out.

A Case Study: North Carolina

Thus the debate over what’s the best record of a voter’s intent continues. In voting, there are many stages in the process and debate about the fairness of those steps. But the controversy over what constitutes the best record of a voter’s intent directly affects how the most disputed results are resolved.

With the president’s impeachment pending, as well as an incumbent president who routinely says that votes have been stolen unless he wins, introducing problematic ballots could increase the risks of a post-November crisis.

However, decisions on what new voting machines to buy are often made at the local level—far below the national political landscape or evidence trail debates. There, sales representatives for a handful of voting system manufacturers, or their subcontractors, have been pushing local officials to buy their wares.

In North Carolina, where a third of the state’s counties are poised to install new voting systems before the March 3 presidential primary, the nation’s biggest voting machine vendor, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), recently told statewide election officials that it could not deliver enough BMDs (its ExpressVote model) to satisfy some big counties’ orders.

ES&S suggested that those counties buy a more expensive model—one that combines the ballot-marking device with a vote-count tabulator—and sought approval from the state Board of Elections (BOE). The approval was needed because the board’s rules require it to evaluate and certify new systems.

The substitute has a different computer operating system, modified software, nearly 90,000 additional lines of computer code and stacked ballot summary cards in chronological order—which could identify the voter, noted Kevin Skoglund, chief technologist for Citizens for Better Elections, in a letter to one state BOE member who later voted against the change.

It is substantively different and embodied what activists who oppose BMDs contend: that there are too many layers of opaque software between a voter’s fingers and the record of their vote—layers that can be altered by hackers or political insiders. They were upset that North Carolina’s state BOE was poised to subvert its rules to accommodate a major vendor.

“Administratively approving a new system with different hardware, software and functionality would negate the entire certification process,” said Lynn Bernstein, an aerospace engineer who founded Transparent Elections North Carolina. “Legislators wisely put into place strict certification laws that help protect our votes, and circumventing this process damages the integrity of our elections.”

But the BOE—with a chair appointed by a Democratic governor in a state with a recent record of GOP-led voter suppression—sided with ES&S, even though it heard from other activists that acquiring hand-marked ballot systems could save counties millions. (Managing volumes of paper ballots poses other challenges, but it is indisputably linked to human actions—and is less costly because far fewer computerized voting stations are needed.)

“We have projected that in the 26 counties that were mainly using the iVotronic DREs [the current system], about $30 million could be saved if these counties were to go with hand-marked paper ballots counted on the ES&S DS200 Digital Scanner and the ADA-compliant AutoMark,” wrote John Brakey, director of Audit-USA, in a letter to the BOE.

Brakey’s analysis was not speculative, but supported by a remarkable and unexpected development in a county with a deep civil rights history—one where lunch-counter protests in 1960 helped spark a national movement.

In Guilford County, where the state’s NAACP chapter president sits on its election board, commissioners approved the system referenced in Brakey’s letter and found that they had more than $5.8 million left in their budget. Those funds were then used to raise the wages of county workers to $15 an hour—including 500 school bus drivers—and to replace public school heating and cooling systems.

“It is practical and it is reasonable,” said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, the Guilford BOE member and state NAACP president. “When vendors are given oversight of elections, the cost will always be prohibitive. When the people have oversight, they will be more secure.”

2020 and Beyond

The infusion of $425 million in new federal funds will still not be sufficient to update voting systems across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School estimates that cost at $2.15 billion over the next five years. But the new federal subsidies will undoubtedly help local officials who are still trying to pay for costly new voting systems.

In Alamance County, North Carolina, county commissioners recently held a hearing and approved borrowing $1.1 million to buy BMDs from ES&S. It is too early to tell if counties like Alamance would see local costs shrink as the new federal funds are disbursed through election agencies.

But Alamance County was not inclined to return to hand-marked ballots, its elections director, Kathy Holland, had told local reporters. She worried that voters would be unfamiliar with marking paper ballots after using touch-screen voting machines for many years. She also said that poll workers would watch for any voters who walked with the ballot summary cards instead of putting them in a scanner. (That happened in Travis County, Texas—home to the state capital of Austin—this past November, delaying the vote count.)

Holland told Voting Booth that ES&S had assured her that there were sufficient BMD machines to fill her county’s order, when asked if the supply issues elsewhere in the state would affect Alamance County.

These rationales and decisions frustrated activists like North Carolina’s Bernstein and Audit-USA’s Brakey, who are posing new arguments to persuade officials to buy voting systems that use hand-marked ballots—and are more secure.

“They could have saved $1.1 million by going with HMPBs [hand-marked paper ballots],” Brakey said in an email, referring to Alamance County.

Nonetheless, local decisions like these will determine what voting looks like across many states for years to come, as voting machinery historically gets replaced every 15 or so years. That’s why the latest infusion of $425 million in federal funds has drawn mixed reactions.

On one hand, officials and allies in policy and vendor circles welcome any new appropriation. On the other hand, activists and others seeking better ways to safeguard the process and resolve vote-counting disputes are seeing missed opportunities.

“When will we learn?” tweeted Ion Sancho, in response to these trends.

Sancho was supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, for 28 years, was named technical adviser to the 2000 Florida presidential recount by the state’s Supreme Court and found flaws in electronic voting machines in 2005.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Why More Companies Are Offering Telecommuting

Nowadays, more and more businesses are moving operations and content online. There’s no easier place to see the effects of this than in advertising; in today’s world, if your business doesn’t have a quality website, it’s not likely to succeed in an increasingly digital environment. Any old website won’t do either – 38 percent of Internet users will stop engaging with a website if the layout is unattractive.

However, some companies are taking it one step further and using online technology to allow employees to work from home. Remote work and telecommuting are becoming more popular options for conducting work, and both employees and employers are seeing the benefits.

Telecommuting: The New Normal?

For most people, the idea of a full-time job includes a long commute to work, sitting at a desk in an office, putting in their hours, and driving home at the end of the day. However, as we enter into a new decade, the reality is often fairly different. Most of these jobs don’t necessarily need to be done in the office. Up to 64 million U.S employees – 50 percent of the workforce – hold a job that is compatible with at least part-time telework. As most Internet providers gradually increase their service speeds and computers become capable of handling more tasks, working from home is infinitely easier.

People have now become somewhat accustomed to this new era of fast internet speeds and easily-accessed information. In fact, as many as 47 percent of consumers expect websites they visit to load in just two seconds or less. The technology is firmly in place, and this is leading more employers to realize that a fair amount of work can be done not in the office, but on a home computer.

Save Time And Money Without Commutes

Working at home comes with a variety of benefits for employees, but the most significant benefit for a majority of employees is no longer having to worry about a commute. Driving to work takes time and money, cutting into employees’ pay through gas costs, car maintenance, and more. Being able to work from home allows employees to skip the commute altogether and instead spend crucial time focusing on tasks related to their jobs. Additionally, driving less is inherently safer; there are approximately six million car accidents in the U.S. each year, and working from home eliminates the risk of an accident during a commute to work.

Increased Accessibility

This push towards telecommuting and remote work has the potential to make life easier and more comfortable for the average employee but could be genuinely lifechanging for the disability community. Often, people with disabilities have an incredibly difficult time finding work due to limited accessibility in the workplace.

Consider, for example, a potential employee with hearing loss. Approximately 15 percent of American adults aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing. Even with ADA reasonable accommodations, it can be difficult to conduct routine business with hearing impairment, such as attending meetings, listening to phone conferences, and so on. Being able to work at home from a computer, with the bulk of work being through online, written communication, increases accessibility. This makes full-time work more available to a wider demographic, improving the lives of those with disabilities that make work difficult or otherwise impossible.

Not Fit For Everyone

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to access the benefits of working from home just yet – there are still a great many jobs that require employees to physically be present at the workplace. For example, the employment of medical lab technologists and technicians is expected to grow by 13% by 2026. While these jobs do deal heavily with technology, the additional equipment needed to perform the job, as well as sanitary spaces, makes a physical workplace mandatory.

However, for the many employees who work primarily on computers or through digital platforms, telecommuting is becoming a more realistic option by the day. As reliance on online technologies increases, it’s likely that more office-work jobs will transition to taking place partially or entirely online.

Top Election Expert Quits ‘Verified Voting’ Organization In Protest

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Verified Voting, the national advocacy group seeking accountable election results, has been “providing cover” for untrustworthy new voting systems and the public officials buying them, according to an esteemed academic board member who has resigned in protest.

“VV [Verified Voting] is on the wrong side,” said the resignation letter from Philip Stark, a University of California mathematician who created a vote-verification tool being adopted by growing numbers of states that has been widely promoted by Verified Voting and advocacy groups following its lead.

Verified Voting is a heavyweight in election policy circles. It relies on its academic credentials to tell public officials to trust them and to dismiss competing views. To be accused by the inventor of its “gold-standard” audit solution of selling out while states and counties are buy voting technology that will be used into the 2030s is remarkable.

That tool Stark is concerned about is called a risk-limiting audit (RLA). It uses statistics and manual examinations of a subset of hand-marked paper ballots to assess with 95 percent certainty if the election results were accurate. The problem is that vendors have been pushing new voting systems that replace hand-marked ballots with computer-printed ballot summary cards. (The cards display a voter’s choices in text and barcodes. The cards’ barcodes are used to tally results at the process’s next stage.)

Stark and other critics say that the cards produced by a so-called ballot-marking device (BMD) may not be accurate because potentially insecure software sits between a voter’s fingers and the printout. Thus, Stark contends that his audit tool cannot assess if the reported result is correct. Also, BMD systems are far more costly than hand-marked ballot systems, he and other critics have said. They note that the acquisition costs are followed by per-machine service agreements designed to generate millions in annual revenues for vendors.

“VV is helping election officials who purchased poorly designed, unnecessarily expensive, insecure, universal-use BMD systems justify their purchases—despite the fact that virtually every expert on our board and advisory board recommended against purchasing universal-use BMDs,” Stark’s resignation letter said.

“The election officials are now touting the fact that VV helped them conduct (i.e., pilot) RLAs to brag that their systems are trustworthy after all—and to claim in court that the audits prove their systems are trustworthy,” he continued. “VV is giving vendors quotes, talking points, and—in effect—product endorsements for insecure, inaccessible systems. VV is on the wrong side.”

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of BMD machines are being acquired by states and counties for wide use in 2020. These jurisdictions include the states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware, and counties in Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, California, Kentucky, Kansas and Indiana. Counties in New York and New Jersey may also buy the new systems.

The rationales for BMDs are layered. Their manufacturers say that they are responding to the needs of jurisdictions that are replacing precincts with vote centers. At these hubs, computers can easily retrieve the ballot styles in many languages and print the summary cards, as opposed to stocking potentially hundreds or thousands of ballot varieties.

Many election officials also like BMD systems not only because they appear modern, but also because computer printouts eliminate political fights over interpreting voter intent (from hand-marked ballots) that can arise in challenges and recounts. Advocates also say that voters with disabilities should not be forced to use different devices from other voters.

While there are many criticisms of BMDs, Stark’s focus is checking the reported results. He said that Verified Voting has been “overclaiming what applying RLA [audit] procedures to an untrustworthy paper trail can accomplish… This is security theater, not election integrity.”

In recent years, Verified Voting President Marian Schneider and other staff have been lobbying states to adopt laws specifying risk-limiting audits. (They lobby against other audit methods.) Meanwhile, Verified Voting has been saying that election officials can conduct RLAs with computer-printed ballot summary cards from BMDs. They also have praised jurisdictions for buying these new systems.

At the DefCon hacking convention’s “Voting Village” this past summer, Schneider reiterated these views in an interview with Voting Booth.

Stark’s letter also said that Verified Voting has sought to undermine the anti-BMD advocacy efforts by him and other computer scientists on its advisory board. The group’s stances are “whitewashing inherently untrustworthy elections,” he said.

“Our message to jurisdictions that buy poorly designed, insecure, universal-use BMD systems should be, ‘We tried to warn you. You need a better voting system,’” Stark wrote. “Instead, we’re saying, ‘Don’t worry: VV will teach you to sprinkle magic RLA dust and fantasies about parallel testing on your untrustworthy election. All will be fine; you can use our authority and reputation to silence your critics.”

Stark said he would rejoin Verified Voting’s board if they changed their policies—which they have not, although they recently retracted claims concerning RLAs in Philadelphia for its new BMD-based system.

Stark has also urged other advisers to resign. One advisory board member who wished to remain anonymous at press time said that he was considering that action. Another, who disagreed with its embrace of BMDs, said that he has not heard from the group in two years—even though his name was listed on the advisory board webpage.

Stark’s resignation is not likely to draw much attention outside election policy circles. But the issues that he is raising are significant and could affect the trustworthiness of election results for years to come.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.