Thursday, September 13, 2007

Commentary: The Fourth Estate Snoozes

by Martin Holsinger

My friend Bernie is making trouble again. No, he’s not having to be a marijuana martyr, thank goodness. The DOJ appears to be too tied up in knots over Mr. Gonzalez’ departure to trifle with small change like Bernie at this point, especially since it’s starting to emerge that their prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was directed by Karl Rove. Siegelman was taken from the courtroom in chains and is being kept in prison pending his appeal, which is highly unusual in political bribery cases. Both these directives came from the benches of Bush-appointed judges, and the whole thing appears to be a politically motivated slapdown of an up-and-coming Democratic politician, especially since the DOJ ignored much larger illegal contributions to Alabama Republicans. Gee, I thought they only jailed opposition politicians in dictatorships…..but, I digress.

Bernie, although deprived of his right to vote due to his marijuana conviction, is working to make sure that those of us who can vote get our votes counted right. To this end, he wrote the following letter to the Nashville Tennessean on August 20, which I will take the liberty of quoting in its entirety, because it’s so well written. Apparently, Nashville’s newspaper of record had been asking its readers for story ideas. Here’s Bernie’s letter:

Mr. Silverman,

All of us appreciate your willingness to solicit comments and suggestions from your readership regarding issues of government improprieties, inefficiencies and insufferable ignorance that require immediate remedies. I am writing to reiterate a concern that many of us have written the Tennessean about for the past 2+ years, a concern that has only deepened in that time. The concern has to do with the inordinate influence over our election officials that electronic voting machine vendors hold and (most likely as a result) why the national concerns over the sanctity and security of our voting systems have obtained no traction here with our TN officials. Again, this is certainly not a new issue but it is one that is heating up nationally and placing Tennessee in the worst possible light. We need relief and your paper’s attention to the relationship between vendors and our election officials is one way to pursue that relief.

Here are some of our concerns:

1) Brook Thompson, the TN State Election Coordinator, is the only state election official serving on the Board of Directors of the Election Center, a group founded with start-up funding by the voting machine companies which continues to promote nonverifiable voting systems that are now being rejected nationally. As other states have returned to more verifiable voting systems and/or have initiated ethics requirements for their public officials, those states’ officials have either voluntarily severed their involvement with the Election Center or have been forced to do so. Not so with Tennessee. Indeed, Mr. Thompson requires that our county election officials attend an indoctrination session run by the Election Center as part of their certification process and he has invited R. Doug Lewis, the Election Center director, to speak at many meetings of the TN Association of County Election Officials (TACEO).

2) TACEO itself deserves serious investigation. This organization is ostensibly composed of county and state election officials, but it also includes members from the voting machine companies, has its meetings heavily underwritten by those vendors and generally discourages citizens from attending their meetings where entirely public business (the business of administering our elections) is discussed. When a group of us asked to attend the TACEO meeting in Memphis two years ago, we had to pay over $2,500 to attend. While there, we witnessed the vendors wining and dining our election officials shamelessly, and we heard (from the podium) statements that these officials could accept anything the vendors had to offer re: gifts without violating state ethics rules since these county election officials are appointed and not elected.

3) As I mentioned in the heading to this message, Tennessee is now considered to be one of the eight states whose elections are most insecure and most unverifiable as a result of the decisions (heavily pushed by Brook Thompson) to invest the $25 million in federal HAVA (Help America Vote Act) funds that Tennessee received for touch-screen machines without any sort of paper record of the votes cast. At present, 93 of Tennessee’s 95 counties use nonverifiable touch-screen machines. In the 2006 election, our group documented problems in about one in every six TN counties related to this equipment.

However, a current effort by the U.S. Congress to amend HAVA to require voter-verified paper ballots — an effort that would provide federal funds for TN to correct our serious mistakes in judgment the first time around — is being aggressively opposed by Brook Thompson and his boss, Riley Darnell (as they also oppose bills in our own state legislature to require voter-verified paper ballots). If TN is considered nationally to be one of the eight worst states for voting security AND the feds are willing to give us money to correct our mistakes, why on earth would our state election officials oppose that? (The reason they say they oppose this effort — that there would not be enough time for our counties to purchase new equipment before the 2008 election — is patent nonsense since these same officials gave our counties less time to purchase equipment in 2006 with HAVA funds than is still available before the 2008 elections, a delay in 2006 that we think helped support the push to encourage purchases of nonverifiable voting equipment.)

While our election officials continue to stone-wall any remediation of the serious errors which they are responsible for creating, what new evidence has emerged to support the Tennessean taking on this battle alongside the scores of TN voters concerned about the safety of our franchise? Here are a few things you should know about:

1) A recent analysis by computer scientists at Florida State University of the ES&S iVotronic voting equipment has revealed a serious security problem that would allow a single person to introduce a virus that would change the outcome of elections conducted with this equipment. Seventeen TN counties (including Davidson) use this ES&S equipment, but we have been unable to get our local and state officials to pursue any action to remedy this security issue.

2.The California Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, has recently de-certified all nonverifiable voting equipment in that state and has imposed a series of stringent requirements that must be put into place before this equipment can be considered for re-certification.

3) A review of the business practices and ethics of voting machine companies conducted by the state of New York has determined that these companies lack the basic business performance track record and professional ethics required to do business with that state. Consequently, New York has opted to continue with its existing voting systems rather than use federal HAVA funds that would coerce them to do business with voting machine companies which do not meet that state’s standards.

4) As a result of the California action, the Attorney General of the State of Kentucky has ordered that our neighboring state’s decision to purchase nonverifiable voting systems be re-examined and he is considering bringing legal action against those companies.

5) At least two California counties are now considering action to demand their money back from the voting machine companies because of false and misleading representations of that equipment.

6) Finally, when Davidson County decided to purchase the ES&S iVotronic equipment, our county election commission was assured that this equipment was made in America. A recent investigative report by Dan Rather showed that this equipment is manufactured in the Philippines and that the primary quality control method used there was to shake the equipment to see if any loose screws could be detected bouncing around inside the equipment.

SO, what should the Tennessean do from here? Our first suggestion would be to send a reporter to tomorrow’s monthly meeting of the State Election Commission. We will be there to discuss all of the issues listed above and we think that you will learn a great deal about why we are in the precarious position we are in by observing the actions of this commission. We would also be happy to discuss our concerns with your reporter after tomorrow’s meeting or at any time that is convenient for you.

These issues continue to illustrate the most important concerns we have for the sanctity and security of how our state–how our nation–transfers the “consent of the governed” through elections to create the legitimate underpinnings for all our governmental systems. Continuing to allow our state’s election officials to both share a bed with the voting machine companies and to dictate how we should conduct our elections from that cozy platform is a recipe for disaster.

We sincerely hope that the Tennessean will take this issue on. There is more than enough “dirt” to fill any investigative series that you decide to pursue. Thank you for your attention.

Bernie Ellis

Well, gee, he just about wrote a series for the reporter, didn’t he? What kind of response did he get? Zip. No reply, no reporter at the state election commission meeting, Guess it just didn’t have that multiracial, feel-good thang that Gannett believes sells papers. But hey, Bernie, citing Dan Rather? Everybody knows he’s been discredited. Just like Don Siegelman. And you. Good job, Karl!

The meeting, held in the absence of the Dark Lords Brook Thompson and Riley Darnell, actually went pretty well, Bernie tells me. He’s not the only one concerned about the accuracy of our voting procedures. But, without the Tennessean there, it was all under the public radar. So, Bernie wrote another letter, and here it is:

Dear Mr. Silverman,
I sent (you a letter) almost two weeks ago, and have received no response. Since sending you this memo, more states (Colorado, Ohio and others) have put a halt on any purchases of new voting equipment and are demanding answers from the voting machine vendors about the security and verifiability of their equipment. Meantime, we here in Tennessee sit under shade trees and spit watermelon seeds at our bare feet. Ah yes, ignorance (nurtured by a quiescent media) is surely bliss. Until it isn’t.

We continue to meet with state legislators working to pass a bill requiring a voter-verified paper ballot in Tennessee, and they say that media attention to this issue would be very helpful. They are embarrassed that TN is considered to be one of the eight stupidest states in the US for squandering over $25 million in HAVA funds for nonverifiable touch-screen machines made in the Phillippines and “inspected” by shaking the equipment vigorously to hear if there are any loose screws inside. I keep reassuring the legislators that TN still does have a functioning media. Am I right or just suffering from nostalgia for the country (and the Fourth Estate)I once knew and loved?

That’s for you to know and the rest of us to find out. Soon, I hope. Please respond to this second mailing, one way or the other. Bernie Ellis, Organizer, Gathering To Save Our Democracy

And what did Bernie get back from this plea? I will quote you Mr. Silverman’s response in its entirety:
“We will take a look at the issues you raise in the email. Thanks”

What enthusiasm, eh? Leads me to suspect that if one were to shake the Tennessean vigorously, or even Mr. Silverman himself, one might hear the sound of quite a few loose screws. Or maybe he was just being terse, like Ernest Hemingway. I’m waiting to find out. But I’m not holding my breath.


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