Say NO to Black Boxing Fox Valley Elections

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the June, 2006 edition of The Valley Scene

Last month the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors were asked to approve a resolution authorizing the acceptance of a grant to purchase electronic, touch screen voting machines manufactured by Diebold. A group of activists attended the meeting and explained the security problems with electronic voting. The resolution failed, and the Board’s Judiciary and Information Systems Committees have now arranged a public hearing to be held on June 14th at 6:00 p.m. in the County Board Room, fourth floor, of the Winnebago County Courthouse (415 Jackson St., Oshkosh).

Voting rights activists refer to the use of touch screen technology in elections as “black box voting,” defined as "Any voting system in which the mechanisms for recording and/or tabulating the vote are hidden from the voter, and/or the mechanisms lacks a tangible record of the vote cast." With voter distrust of elections at an all-time high, why would any locality place touch screen machines in polling places? Simply because election officials feel pressured by handicap accessibility requirements mandated by the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Section 301(3)(A) of HAVA says:

Accessibility for individuals with disabilities. The voting system shall-- (A) be accessible for individuals with disabilities, including non visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters; (B) satisfy the requirement of subparagraph (A) through the use of at least one direct recording electronic voting system or other voting system equipped for individuals with disabilities at each polling place

The language clearly does not require the accessibility requirement to be met exclusively by touch screen machines, yet election officials feel differently after being lobbied extensively by electronic voting machine manufacturers. The result? Taxpayers across America have now purchased billions of dollars worth of unreliable equipment.

Suspicions about and malfunctions with touch screen machines across the country have been extensively documented by bloggers and voters’ rights organizations, but woefully underreported in the mainstream press. In a New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman wrote that “Bev Harris . . . found Diebold software - - which the company refuses to make available for public inspection, on the grounds that it’s proprietary – on an unprotected server, where anyone could download it . . . This in itself was an immediate breach of security . . . Why isn’t this front page news?”

Krugman’s correct; with the possible exception of the flawed reporting and editorializing that served as a drum beat leading the country into Iraq, mainstream media minimizing of the problems inherent in electronic voting technology has been the most shameful journalism in the history of the nation. The Oshkosh Northwestern, for example, warned Winnebago County officials to beware of “rumor, innuendo, and conspiracy theories” as they go about deciding whether to purchase the touch screens.

In actual fact, problems with touch screen voting are so extensive that the only “conspiracy” in place appears to be the media conspiracy to minimize them. Bev Harris’ book Black Box Voting (available on-line at documents 100 examples of computerized voting failures, and hundreds more can be found on the web site. Security technologist Bruce Schneier ( cites some prominent examples:

More recently, the city of Philadelphia experienced a massive touch screen meltdown during last month’s primary election, resulting in two to three hour waits for many voters and city election officials claiming that had the voter turnout been higher the situation would have been “catastrophic.”

In Maryland the use of Diebold technology was so fraught with error that the House of Delegates voted 137-0 to scrap electronic technology and go back to paper ballots.

For more examples, see Voters Unite’s “Myth Breakers: Facts About Electronic Elections,” a well-researched description and analysis of the problem. ( The report presents evidence of how electronic voting machines have forced states to hold new elections, added votes not cast by voters, subtracted votes cast by voters, changed voters’ choices on the screen, given voters the wrong ballot, passed pre-election testing and failed on election day, handed votes to the wrong candidate, reversed election outcomes, broken down causing long lines during elections, and recorded votes incorrectly.

Local governments need to say NO to unreliable voting technology. We should take a lesson from County Commissioners in Asheville, North Carolina. Upon rejecting a staff recommendation to buy touch screen technology, four of the five commissioners said they didn't believe voters would have confidence in the machines. Bravo for common sense.

Andrew Kantor in a 2004 USA Today op-ed called it right: "Today's electronic voting machines are unreliable and unsecured. Until the multitude of problems they present are worked out, these systems need to be removed from service, period.”

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.