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What does the Democratic victory mean for Election Reform?

November 15th, 2006

Leading to election day, awareness and concern about our election system was peaking. Several independent studies raised serious doubts about the electronic voting machines, and CNN was reporting extensively on the issue, nearly every day. Activists who used to be labeled "conspiracy nuts" were becoming respected experts in the field. And the public was finally noticing, as polls indicated widespread concerns and doubt about the integrity of our election system -- particularly the electronic voting machines.

So when the Democrats won, many have wondered what will become of this growing movement. Will it lose steam, as people could interpret the victory as evidence there's nothing to worry about? Some might even think that all of us working to save our democracy are going to go back to sleep now.


The victory does NOT imply it was a clean election. In fact the more we analyze the data, the stranger it looks. When we look at individual races rather than just who won the house, some disturbing patterns are emerging. Once again we find the exit polls do not match the official results. There are areas with more votes than voters, and some where unusually high numbers of voters mysteriously left highest race on the ballot blank. There are scores of reports of vote flipping - when a voter votes for a particular candidate and the confirmation screen at the end says they voted for someone else. As virtually every problem reported seems to help the Republicans, it appears that if the election were in fact clean, the Democrats would have picked up several more seats than they did. (For updated info on '06 irregularities, click here).

Some look for an explanation as to how the Democrats actually pulled it off, considering all the problems. Perhaps tide was just too much, even for the voting machines to stop it this time. Another thing to consider is that the security vulnerabilities with the machines show that anyone can influence our elections, not just the Republicans. And since Venezuelan President Chavez now owns one of the voting machine companies, it's no longer a simple partisan issue. Multiple people could try to affect the election, all at the same time by a variety of methods, throwing our election system upside down.

It's also possible that those in direct control of the machines saw that we were watching very closely this time, which we were. And there were indications that some people were not going to sit back and let another election be stolen.

One thing we absolutely know for sure. The hard work of election reform activists, particularly over the last 2 years, had a major affect on last week's election. From the audits taking place to the spotlight on strange results, it became harder for fraudsters to manipulate data without being noticed. Kudos to those who worked so hard on this and continue to do so!

But don't look for these devoted democracy lovers to pack up and go home now that the Democrats are in control. The victory really only confirms what many have been saying all along - that election rights is a non-partisan issue. In fact there are Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, and all types of people involved in the efforts to fix our election system. Last week's results do not change anything about the system, the vulnerabilities, and the crazy idea that a handful of private companies should be able to count our votes in secret, on proprietary software.

What this victory means for the movement is it's time to tighten up our bootstraps, and we have a very small window of opportunity to actually do something about the problem. While it's true that the core issue is non-partisan, it's also true that Republicans have blocked all election reform bills since they took control of Congress back in 1994. With the Democrats in control, there are several bills already on the table which will be considered.

But if the war and other problems divert attention from this issue we could be facing another Grand Theft in two short years, with even higher stakes. Now is the time for the election reform movement to step to the plate, to energize, turn on the pressure, and to make sure federal legislation is passed to protect all American's right to vote and have it counted properly.

Election Bills Collecting Dust Under Republican Rule

One of the first orders of business for this Congress should be quick passage of an election reform law. Several bills have been proposed. Here, two are contrasted.

H.R. 550: Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act

This Bill was first introduced by Congressman Rush Holt. It's major key points are:

  • All votes must have a Voter Verified Paper Record. In other words - no more of those touchscreen voting machines that can't be recounted! The machines would have to be retrofitted allowing a paper receipt to be printed, which could be used in a recount or audit.
  • Two percent Audit of the paper records. This is an attempt to verify that the machines are working properly and there is no fraud.
  • Open source code. Voting machine manufacturers would be forced to release the vote counting program code, so that experts and the public can know what is going on inside the machines.

Comments: The Solar Bus has advocated for passage of HR550, but we do recognize some shortcomings. We feel strongly, and many statisticians agree, that the 2% audit is too small and would not catch fraud in many circumstances. There are also some areas of concern, particularly about powerful role of the Election Assistance Commission, which could be under control of partisan officials. HR550 has become a problem for election reform activists, dividing the community. While some recognize it would be a major step in the right direction, others fear its passage would leave us with far too many problems remaining, and a false sense of security.

S. 450: Count Every Vote Act

This bill was first introduced by Hillary Clinton, with co-sponsors Barbara Boxer, Mark Dayton, John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg, Patrick Leahy, and Barbara Mikulski. What sets this bill apart from HR550 is that it is much more comprehensive. While HR550 focuses exclusively on the voting machines, S450 attempts to address the myriad of problems we have seen over the last few elections. Key points include:

  • Similar to HR550, stipulations for the voting machines including: requirement for paper records, random audits, and open source code.
  • Rules about counting provisional ballots
  • Preventing long lines at the polls and standardizing the number of voting machines
  • Absentee voting standards
  • Public reports on federal elections
  • No more partisan officials running statewide elections (Ken Blackwell)
  • Federal standards on purging voters
  • Election day registration and early voting
  • Prohibition of certain campaign activities

Commentary: Because S450 is more comprehensive and addresses more than just the voting machines, we favor it over HR550. But the 2% audit is inadequate.

There are other bills as well. Check here for a list of election reform bills. Most are considered as amendments to the Help America Vote Act (which has been renamed the "Help America Buy Diebold Voting Machines Act").

It is our hope that any legislation considered be improved before it is passed, particularly in respect to the audits. Two percent is not enough, and the methods for auditing have been labeled ineffective by many experts in the field.

It's been said that election reform is the mother of all activist issues, because when the vote counting can't be trusted, people who care about all different kinds of issues find themselves working together. And when this job is done, those people can all go back to work on their particular causes, by trying to elect representatives who agree with them. Clearly we are not there yet -- the Democratic victory was not the resolution of the problem in any way. A close look at the election reveals there were significant problems regardless of who won the majority of House and Senate seats. The victory only opened a window of opportunity that cannot be missed to pass legislation to save our Democracy, so in 2008 and beyond we can have confidence in our election results.

Stay tuned to the Solar Bus as we continue to fight towards these goals.