#OccupyWallStreet Electoral Reform: Eva Waskell and the Election Integrity Movement

Gordon Cook has published an extraordinary and in-depth report on the work of Eva Waskell, pioneer of the Election Integrity Movement:

Report: The Privatization of Democratic Elections via Computer Technology, on Eva Waskell and the Election Integrity Movement. Cook Report, February 2010

Full report at http://www.cookreport.com/eva.pdf

Intro via http://www.cookreport.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=38%3Acurrent-issues&id=253%3Aapr-may-2010&Itemid=73


Waskell: “The most important political office is that of private citizen.” Justice Louis Brandeis said that, not me. And citizens in the election integrity movement take their political office pretty seriously. They’re trying to live it. And don’t forget, they’re angry citizens. Angry citizens who have the potential to have a powerful and lasting effect on shaping election reform if they can channel that anger into effective action. There’s a connection here to something a member of the audience at Supernova 2009 said. I’m paraphrasing a tiny bit. “The public Internet was created by angry young men. Now it’s run by old men who still act like angry young men.” Something similar in terms of harnessing human energy is happening with today’s innately curious citizens who for the first time really started paying attention to how elections were run and then suddenly they became angry! It was citizens who were closest to the nuts and bolts of local election procedures as practiced. They were in the trenches and saw with their own eyes what was happening on election day at the polls and at the LEOs office, and on election night in the central counting room, and they had a gut reaction to much of it. It was citizens who directly observed the meaningless pre-election logic and accuracy tests, the meaningless recount procedures, the flagrant partisanship, the barriers to observer access, the rigged recount in Ohio after the November 2004 election.”

COOK Report: Don’t these various citizen groups have anything in common?

Waskell: There definitely is common ground and common purpose to what these dedicated volunteers are doing but they’re largely functioning in cells. I haven’t seen any real kind of sustained national coordination. The Creekside Declaration of March 22, 2008 is one attempt by about a dozen election integrity advocates (including election official Ion Sancho of Leon County, Florida) to define a common purpose: “Our mission is to encourage citizen ownership of transparent, participatory democracy.” And Nancy Tobi in New Hampshire, Andi Novick in New York, voting rights attorney Paul Lehto from Washington state, and Bev Harris’ watchdog group Black Box Voting and her mighty elves have begun to focus more and more on election integrity and election reform as a human rights issue. In addition, Harris et al rightly focus on the public right to know, public access to open election data, transparency, and accountability. Right now these concepts, especially the public right to know, public oversight and public control of elections, are pretty foreign to mainstream thinking in general and within the election community itself.

COOK Report: Let’s get back to the nascent election integrity movement.

Waskell: Some of the initial post-2000 efforts of the election integrity movement have been quite successful. But if this is going to grow into a genuine movement that makes a permanent difference, they are going to have to build relationships with election officials based on mutual respect and understanding. Exactly what Greg Mortenson did in Afghanistan as described in his recent books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools. Mortenson also points out that the very first step in his mission to promote peace through education was listening. He listened to the people. He listened and he heard what they wanted and that was what motivated him. I can’t emphasize enough how critical face-to-face listening is as a first step.

Right now I don’t see much listening and mutual respect at the local level. Citizen activists and election officials are largely throwing stones at each other. Yes, election officials must be held accountable if they violate the law and I know from first-hand experience that they have done so repeatedly with total impunity. This has set a very bad and deeply engrained precedent within our election system. Just ask the two women who found official election records, results tapes of precinct vote totals, in a dumpster behind the election department building in a county in Florida—a crystal clear violation of the federal law regarding retention of election records. And it was caught on videotape! The citizens were subsequently harassed by officials but the LEO was not punished at all. Injustices like this must not be allowed to continue. They’re part of what fuels many activists.

At the same time, this arrogant and unlawful behavior does not reflect the vast, vast majority of hard-working, patient, dedicated and honest election officials who are doing the very best they can with very limited resources and working under pressure coming from a very large number of conflicting forces. Let’s think about what they have to deal with as the ringmistress or ringmaster of a 30-ring circus. By the way, election administration/management courses in The Election Center’s Professional Education Program cover the topic of “organized anarchy.”

Election officials need to remember that there are definitely some citizens who ask questions that expose their basic ignorance about election procedures. And there are citizens who only seem to point out what you’re doing wrong and not what you’re doing right. (Election administration is like housework in this regard. People only notice when something is not done. “You didn’t wash my blue socks.” There’s never any praise for what is routinely done. “Hey sweetie, thank you ever so much for taking out the garbage. Let me give you a hug.) This does not mean that all citizens can be painted with the same brush of disdain. At some point, hopefully in the near future, citizens and election officials are going to have to create a process equivalent to having three cups of tea. And they need to create a safe space where this can happen. It’s going to be exciting to see how this unfolds in each jurisdiction.

COOK Report: Can you briefly summarize how your focus shifted over the years?

Waskell: Before I say something about my shift in focus over the years, let me say something about my focus during an actual election. It was always necessary to shift your focus and your awareness during any election to ensure that you saw the whole problem in context and in relationship to all of the other parts of the election system. The trick in doing this was that some of the election context was visible and some of it was either invisible or a taboo topic you didn’t talk about. At the same time, you had to know what was important and keep your eye on that. You had to understand what you were looking at. This is a key factor in election monitoring that’s overlooked all the time. You can’t effectively monitor a process you don’t understand. You wouldn’t want me to evaluate brain surgery, for example, or someone’s golf swing. Yet we have people observing an election process all the time and they have no idea of what they’re looking at…whether it’s the pre-election logic and accuracy test or the vote counting. One last point. Because there’s so much happening election day within a very short period of time, it’s very easy for something that’s critical to get lost in the chaos.

COOK Report: So how did your focus and your thinking about elections evolve over time?

Originally I focused on the technology and the need for robust, mandatory standards. And I researched the ownership of the vendors when I had the chance. Who really owned these private companies whose software had such enormous political power? Who were the programmers? Who were the other employees? Ronnie Dugger has done a lot of digging in this area and so have a number of citizen-based groups. Unfortunately, what these public service investigators have uncovered and documented is not well known at all outside the activist community. So government agencies in Nevada and California know more about the employees in casinos and the people who collect money from parking meters than any election official at any level of government anywhere in the country knows, or has even tried to know, about the people who own, work, consult with and are tied to the companies that manufacture voting systems. When any state or local election sleuths examine the private vendors, their number one concern is whether or not the company will remain solvent so no LEO gets burned buying a voting system and then having the vendor go out of business. The vendors will tell you that this entire situation isn’t really a problem because they do backgrounds checks on their employees. No further comment. Let’s move on to something more uplifting.

The proprietary vote-counting software was the first dragon I wanted to slay. Then later I realized that trade secret election software does much more than count votes. The vendors’ election management systems are used for many essential and critical functions throughout the election process and all of this software is uncertified, unexamined and unregulated. So first it was all about the flawed voting equipment and this impenetrable black box that was counting votes.

And because I jumped into the three lawsuits at the very beginning, I quickly saw the limitations of the courtroom process. Then over the course of a few decades, I spoke with numerous attorneys across the country who were involved in a variety of election litigation at the local level. The common theme that emerged here was that the courtroom was a dead end. The Catch 22 situation the plaintiff always faced was that you have to show fraud before you get access to the voted ballots. But you have to inspect the original voted ballots if you expect to prove fraud. And even if a judge orders the LEO to turn over the ballots or the election database on the election computer, some or all of the key evidence—without failure—has a funny way of disappearing. The plaintiff is left empty-handed (and soon to be ridiculed) and the LEO goes back to work as if nothing happened, except that the LEO will be sure to tell the stenographers—I mean the press—about how much money the “sore loser” has cost the local taxpayers.

That reference I just made to a judge ordering the election database on the election computer to be turned over to the plaintiff comes from a court case in Pima County, Arizona stemming from a 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election with just a yes/no choice on the ballot. I don’t know where to begin to talk about this election and the actions of the local election department in Tucson because there are so many absolutely excellent examples of what really happens when someone gets too close to potential hard evidence. The voted optical scan ballots suddenly get moved to another county…for safekeeping. Poll tapes with vote totals go along for the ride. Critical documents are missing and never found. No one is held accountable. Transparency is close to zero. Observer access to the hand recount is restricted. The press reports are very, very misleading and incomplete, and when you read the citizen reports about what happened, the details that emerge are disturbing. It’s a perfect story for PBS’s FRONTLINE but the entire story would have to be shown in several parts so people would have time to absorb the dirty little election secrets that were exposed. But it’s the disappearance of evidence that should concern us.

What needs to be done now?

In addition to a Democracy Index, we also need to get to work on gathering election data for a Transparency Index and an Accountability Index for LEOs. Citizens have a pretty good head-start on gathering solid data in these areas. One of the groups that come to mind is SAVE R VOTE in Riverside, California, which was founded by Tom Courbat. SAVE R VOTE has written six citizen observation reports on six elections from June 2006 to November 2008 and submitted them to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and state election officials. These reports detailing multiple and repeated violations of election procedures, chain of custody, security, transparency and auditability are well worth the read. I suggest starting with the report on the June 2008 election entitled Broken Links and the follow-up report on the November 2008 election entitled Missing Pieces .

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