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Who Should Check Voting Machines?

May 13, 2007
Commentary By Michael Fischer and Christina Spiesel

Replacing our old lever voting machines with new computerized scanners was the best choice that could be made under new federal law. But along with the machine replacement, Connecticut is also throwing out its venerable system of local control of elections. Replacing it is a centralized system under the full control of the secretary of the state.

We believe that most people have no idea that this is happening.

Under past practices, local registrars of voters, poll workers and observers could examine lever voting machines to assure that votes were counted correctly. Scanners are electronic, not mechanical, and their programming is done by an out-of-state private firm under a multimillion-dollar contract from the secretary of the state. The only way to detect that something is amiss is to hand-count the paper ballots and compare them to the totals produced by the machine.

The General Assembly is considering legislation that would mandate random audits of machines after elections to check the accuracy and honesty of the system. The intent of Senate Bill 1311 is good, but its actual provisions are badly flawed and, at considerable expense, do little to increase the trustworthiness of elections.

The biggest defect is that responsibility for conducting the audits and acting on the results is given to the secretary of the state - the same person who attests to the accuracy of the machines, who controls the contracts for programming the machines, and who has a political and partisan interest in the outcome of the races to be counted by the machines.

This concentration of power in the secretary of the state creates a classic conflict of interest, where the person with the power to corrupt the process also has an incentive to do so.

The purpose of any audit is to provide an independent check. Without independence, an audit is nothing more than window dressing. The first change that is needed to the proposed legislation is to put responsibility for the audits in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan board of trustees.

In addition, loopholes need to be removed that allow audits to be avoided when they are most needed - when a race is close or there are possible problems with the machines. Last November's 2nd Congressional race was very close. But the machines used in that race were excluded from the test audit and have never been examined for accuracy.

Finally, full audit results should be sent to the registrars of voters of each town and made available to the public on a state website. Under the legislation, the public would have access only to an analysis prepared by the University of Connecticut, not to the audit data. Moreover, the secretary of the state is not required to investigate further or prevent problems from recurring, even when a voting system has failed to record votes accurately.

The promise "trust us" wasn't good enough for the Founding Fathers when they set the pattern of our governance. It also isn't good for our elected officials, who need to serve with clear mandates provided by trustworthy elections.

The state's new optical scanners cannot earn voters' confidence without proper security precautions carried out by an independent audit board.

Michael Fischer, a professor of computer science at Yale University, and Christina Spiesel are founding members of True Vote Connecticut, a group concerned about election integrity.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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