In late November, 2008, the California Humboldt County Registrar of Voters and a group of citizen volunteers working together as the Election Transparency Project detected an error in the November 4 final vote tally: 197 ballots had been eliminated by the Premier (formerly Diebold) electronic election system. How was this possible? The quiet story of the Election Transparency Project demonstrates that true election transparency is possible now, given the winning combination of strong commitment by a County’s Registrar of Voters and generous volunteer citizen effort, including volunteer technical expertise.
Responding to public concern about the reliability of election results produced by opaque proprietary corporate technology, Humboldt County Registrar Carolyn Crnich had invested about $25,000 of her budget to purchase an off-the-shelf, high-speed scanner to scan all the ballots and to place their images on a publicly available website. This approach was tried for the first time in the June 2008 primary election, and again in the general election of November. To see the ballots yourself, go to http://hum.dreamhosters.com/etp/.
Fortunately, the Registrar was able to intervene with the Secretary of State to correct the error. In a subsequent investigation, the Secretary of State’s staff found additional flaws in the Premier (Diebold) technology, including a button that erased parts of the audit logs—something that never should happen. An audit log must preserve evidence of every step taken in an election, including any erasures and re-scanning. Furthermore, the audit log erasures occur-red without knowledge of the person pressing the button. Reports on this matter and the Secretary of State’s hearing on March 17 may be found at the Secretary of State’s website: http://www. sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_vs_premier. htm.
I attended the March 17 hearing in Sacramento, along with other colleagues in the Voting Rights Task Force of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. We had the pleasure of talking with Registrar Crnich as well as citizen members of the Election Transparency Project. I am deeply impressed with the success of this elegantly simple and affordable project which has instantly made possible in Humboldt County what amounts to an unofficial recount of 100 percent of the ballots cast in all contests in all elections. If such a project could be replicated in Alameda County, not only would the Registrar of Voters be able to conduct independent checks of the results. Any citizen with access to a computer and willing to spend the time and energy to count the votes also could conduct his/her own hand recount of as many of the ballots as might be of interest. Those who say hand-counted ballots are the only way to go would be able to conduct such hand counts. A candidate whose contest yielded surprising results could enlist the aid of supporters to do a quick count of those ballots; such a count might facilitate a timely request for an official recount or might convince the candidate that, although surprising and disappointing, the results appeared to have been accurately counted.
Although some people object to any use of electronics in elections, the Humboldt County ETP has a number of features that seem to me very reassuring. First, the technology is off-the-shelf. The scanner is just a scanner. It is not part of an election package of hardware and software leased by a corporate vendor who refuses to allow county elections personnel to inspect or look inside it. It seems wildly implausible to me that an off-the-shelf scanner would have flaws that would systematically change, drop, or add ballots. The scanner doesn’t count the ballots. The scanner simply scans (makes copies of) the ballots for posting to a website.
Humboldt County’s ETP uses its own software, developed by a local citizen and available as open source to conduct its independent analysis of the ballots. Although it is possible that a malicious person might at some point become part of the Registrar’s group (as could happen at any time—it is possible that a malicious person could manage to be hired and entrusted and could later violate that trust), the beauty of the Election Transparency Project is that the ballot images would be viewable and analyzable on a public website. Any citizen could conduct an independent analysis. That analysis might be simply viewing the ballots and hand-tabulating them with paper and pencil. Any citizen with computer skill could conduct his or her independent analysis of the data, using his or her software. Citizen groups could divide up the work and compare results. Additional information about the ETP and the open source ballot scanning and tallying system it uses can be found at www.mitchtrachtenberg.com.
With an Election Transparency Project real transparency is possible. Any motivated citizen can and may look at the ballots and come to his or her own conclusions. If the results seem questionable, those results could and should be brought to the attention of the Registrar of Voters and to elected officials for appropriate action.
Currently we hear that new county (and state) accomplishments are impossible because there is no money. But Humboldt County established the Election Transparency Project with a modest outlay from its budget and with volunteer help from dedicated citizens. Alameda County’s Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald is computer savvy—he is the county Information Technology head as well as the Registrar. Alameda County’s citizenry includes many who already have demonstrated a willingness to contribute hard work to increase election transparency.
Humboldt County has achieved Proof of Concept: it can be done: they did it. We can do it, too. And we should, in my opinion.
Dr. Judy Bertelsen is a member of the Voting Rights Task Force, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.