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Signs of the Times for Fri, 17 Mar 2006

Signs Editorial:

by Robert C. Koehler
15 Mar 06

Something fundamental about who we are as a nation is dribbling away, it seems, without alarm or even debate. We torture prisoners - it's out in the open, a done deal. We're fighting an unnecessary war that, well, yes, was launched on a lie, but too late now; we're in, we can't get out. And our neighbor's phone is being tapped.

But the worry that trumps all others is the state of this proud, imperfect democracy. We may be surrendering our power to change the national direction or demand that government be responsive to us. My fellow Americans, our voting machines don't work, at least not all the time. The mechanism of our democracy is in chaos, and almost everyone is going along with it.

Thanks to the allegedly well-intentioned, but disastrous, Help America Vote Act, the country is shifting, county by county, to electronic voting machines, which are not only glitch-prone on a spectacular scale (e.g., 100,000 phantom votes were recorded in Tarrant County, Texas, during the state's primary last week), but work, like God, in mysterious ways, which we're not supposed to question. The results they give us are all too often unverifiable.

And here's the clincher: The process isn't even public anymore.

"The question is, how can a state essentially outsource the most public act? They've outsourced voting to private companies and (the states) have no role to play."

Meet Ion Sancho, election supervisor of Leon County, Fla., outspoken public servant and small-d democrat. He oversees the voting process in his bailiwick and is part of the national infrastructure of democracy. Those of us not in the know assume that impartial professionals like Sancho are the norm, but if they were, there'd be no reason to call him a hero - and his job wouldn't be in jeopardy.

The forces of big money and big government don't like Sancho and have ganged up against him because he speaks his mind and because he decertified the Diebold optical-scan voting machines his county had purchased after they failed a security test - a "hostile hack," as bulldog blogger Brad Friedman called it - in December.

In that test, Finnish security expert Harry Hursti, whom Sancho called in to give the machines a true challenge, was able to flip the results of a small demo election using a generic memory card, leaving no trace of tampering. He had no password, merely the sort of machine access most poll workers have. The test proved that Diebold's optical-scan machines, contrary to what the company had claimed to election officials across the country, were vulnerable to insider fraud.

Sancho voided Diebold's contract and publicized the results, which, as Friedman, who has covered national election-fraud issues relentlessly, put it, "had earthquake-like repercussions across the entire electoral system in the United States." For instance, the state of California, reacting to Sancho's warning, conducted its own test of Diebold machines and corroborated his findings. Other experts also support Sancho.

Yet Sancho is persona non grata in his own state. Not only has Diebold itself refused to do further business with Leon County as long as Sancho is election supervisor (refused, that is, either to correct the security flaws Sancho found or sell him different machines, or even return his phone calls), but the other two voting machine companies certified in Florida, ES&S and Sequoia, have also refused to do business with him.

And the state of Florida is blaming Sancho! The office of Secretary of State Sue Cobb, a Jeb Bush appointee, has demanded the county return $564,421 in HAVA money because Sancho missed a deadline "for - you guessed it - obtaining new machines," in the words of Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm. Sancho "may be a hero in California," writes Grimm, "but messing with monied interests makes him a pariah in Florida."

Sancho told me: "The Diebold company has embarked on a program of vilification abetted by Florida officials. There's no reason why I'm blacklisted except that I won't keep my mouth shut. . . . We are being illegally blackballed by a private company and that blackballing has the potential to disenfranchise the voters in my jurisdiction."

Sancho is in the way. Too bad for him. He went with the optical-scan technology in the first place because, he said, unlike touch-screen voting, it has a paper ballot. "There's a tremendous overdependence in our industry on vendors. This technology allowed me to be independent from vendors."

The problem is, there's an anti-democratic force rampaging across the country that wants just the opposite: privately conducted, secrecy-shrouded elections. The state of Florida even has a bizarre law outlawing manual recounts of election results. This removes all chance of public scrutiny from the process.

I humbly submit that this is nuts, and that if we don't scream out at the top of our lungs we're going to lose our democracy. What we're witnessing, I fear - and what isolated watchdogs like Sancho are warning us about, but cannot prevent all by themselves - is democracy's transition to expensive charade.

As the power of the vote leaks away, the hissing sound I hear are the words "Trust us, trust us."

- - -

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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