Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Eureka Reporter OpEd: Confidence in election counting?

Well, I haven't exactly been doing NO writing. This is coming out in Thursday's Eureka Reporter, online as of a few minutes ago.

Confidence in election counting?
by Dave Berman, 11/28/2007

Elections officials may hope the public has both confidence and faith in election results, but it is only reasonable for them to seek confidence, and never faith. This is not a church-and-state issue. This is about the public's non-negotiable right to oversee the process by which we empower our representatives. This is also about distinguishing things that can and cannot be known with certainty.

Who among us can say how many stars are in the sky, pebbles on the beach or blades of grass on a field? Many religions contemplate an all-knowing deity, perhaps worthy of your faith. Yet we do not install our neighbors in public office to then accept their word unquestioningly. Still, election machines can only require faith because the secrecy of the computer programming leaves no rational basis for confidence in the results reported.

Nationwide, many voters still use paperless electronic machines known to lose votes, swap a voter's choice, count backwards and tally more votes than registered voters. Once a "glitch" occurs, there is no way to know if any "correction" reveals the correct count of the votes cast. Even if no problems occur, there is still no permanent record to verify the data considered proprietary and kept secret by the machine manufacturer.

Humboldt County does provide the benefit of paper ballots; however, it continues to feed them into optical scanners - big black boxes - where ballot markings are encoded into a form humans can't read. From there, only faith allows one to accept the results. Again, there is no rational basis for confidence.

It is not overly suspicious to raise these questions. Security reviews conducted in three states (including California) have found that Humboldt County's optical scanners are so vulnerable to tampering that no "procedural mitigations" or enhanced security measures can guarantee the sanctity of the machines.

The GEMS central tabulator program continues as part of Humboldt County's vote-counting system, used at the Elections Office to combine results from all precincts. Use of this program inexplicably continues more than three years after the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Readiness Team labeled it a threat to national security.

Back to faith and confidence. Not only is it inappropriate for the election process to demand blind faith; when the process is spelled out, it seems hard to believe anyone would willingly invest their faith in it.

The Elections Office operates equipment that may as well be a divining rod. The people there do their job and report the numbers they get. They should have no more influence over those numbers than a nurse checking a patient's temperature. Yet Elections Office staff can't vouch with any certainty the accuracy of the numbers it announces. Media report these same numbers without any verification. The public goes whistling past the grave of democracy.

Are elections inherently like stars, pebbles and blades of grass? No! Imagine a community meeting room full of voters who each drop a pebble in an urn. When it comes time to count, we see there are exactly the same number of votes and voters, and with the entire community as witnesses, the votes may be counted and recounted ad nauseam. The results would be the same over and over and this can be known with certainty. This is a rational basis for confidence in the results and it does not require faith. This is what we can achieve now in Humboldt County by hand-counting our paper ballots.

Go to for a detailed report on election conditions in Humboldt County, including recommendations for improvement. E-mail to join our roster of voters willing to hand-count on election night. We hope soon to show the Board of Supervisors there are enough of us to do the job.

No argument will be taken seriously if it openly advocates secret vote counting, ensuring inherently uncertain results that require blind faith. No, we never hear that argument. Yet that's where Humboldt County stands, at least partially because the community has not challenged it strongly enough. This despite our own documented track record of modem failures, memory card failures and even complete failures requiring machine replacement in the field during election day.

(Dave Berman lives in Eureka.)

NOTE: This essay as I submitted it had the following closing paragraph:

It can happen here, Humboldt. You'll know it has when nobody asks questions and we take everything on faith.


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We Do Not Consent, Volume 1 (left) and Volume 2 (right), feature essays from Dave Berman's previous blogs, GuvWurld and We Do Not Consent, respectively. Click the covers for FREE e-book versions (.pdf). As of April 2010, paperbacks are temporarily out of print. Click here for the author's bio.

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"If in the future we have vital elections, the "no basis for confidence" formulation that GuvWurld is popularizing will have been a historically important development. This is true because by implicitly insisting on verification and checks and balances instead of faith or trust in elections officials or machines as a basis for legitimacy, it encourages healthy transparent elections. It’s also rare that a political formulation approaches scientific certainty, but this formulation is backed up by scientific principles that teach that if you can’t repeat something (such as an election) and verify it by independent means, it doesn’t exist within the realm of what science will accept as established or proven truth."

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"Dave Berman has been candid and confrontational in challenging all of us to be "ruthlessly honest" in answering his question, "What would be better?" He encourages us to build consensus definitions of "better," and to match our words with actions every day, even if we do only "the least we can do." Cumulatively and collectively, our actions will bring truth to light."

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"Dave Berman's work is quietly brilliant and powerfully utilitarian. His Voter Confidence Resolution provides a fine, flexible tool whereby any community can reclaim and affirm a right relation to its franchise as a community of voters."

— Elizabeth Ferrari, San Francisco, Green Party of California

"This is an important collection of essays with a strong unitary theme: if you can't prove that you were elected, we can't take you seriously as elected officials. Simple, logical, comprehensive. 'Management' (aka, the 'powers that be') needs to get the message. 'The machines' are not legitimizers, they're an artful dodge and a path to deception. We've had enough...and we most certainly DO NOT consent."

— Michael Collins covers the election fraud beat for "Scoop" Independent Media

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