Ohio Election Officials Say Reform Costly, Others Say Reforms Also Risky, Unwise
ONB COLUMBUS: Last Friday Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner presented the controversial findings of her $1.8 million dollar EVEREST study of Ohio’s election system showing vulnerabilities abound.
This week, after the scrutiny of the report by a wide range of people, from political foes to voter-rights activists to independent election experts, Brunner begrudgingly dropped a preliminary price tag to make Ohio’s election system ship-shape before next year’s presidential election at the latest and the Buckeye primary on March 4th at the earliest.
IS THE PRICE RIGHT OR DOES IT MATTER?
That price tag, which she coyly puts at about $31 million but other local election officials say will be much higher, will only add more heat to an already hot debate over what election reforms should be pursued, where the buck stops with respect to who ultimately makes that call and how many bucks the taxpayers will be asked to cough up, be they federal or state tax dollars. The political football that is the report, its findings and recommendations already has people lining up on opposing sides of the contentious line of scrimmage over whether the security and accuracy of voting in Ohio can really be trusted if the same machines are used by the same election workers, or whether changes to one or both are needed to fill the holes of vulnerability her reported were a clear and present danger to the system.
SIZE OF ELECTION REFORM COSTS UP FOR GRABS
In a report from The Columbus Dispatch, Brunner said her preliminary figure for election reforms is $31 but predicted that figure would drop after her office “finishes a survey of what's already budgeted and of scanning equipment in the counties that could be reused under her plan.”
Trying to take credit for doing the election analysis report without suffering repercussions from it, she told the Dispatch she’s “somewhat hopeful” federal funding would be available if a bill moving through Congress becomes law, and, presumably, if that doesn’t happen she would want to tap Ohio’s $1 billion rainy-day fund to pay for some reforms others say are all wet.
But Brunner’s figure, says Matt Damschroder, who serves as both the president of the Association of Ohio Election Officials which represents Ohio’s approximately 600 boards of elections workers and the Franklin County Board of Elections (BOE), one of the state’s bigger, more well-funded BOEs, was a “low-ball at best” figure that was unrealistic. Providing one example of why the cost will be higher, Damschroder told a reporter that he estimates that printing costs for paper ballots in his county would itself be about $1 million.
OTHER ELECTION EXPERTS SUMMIT EVEREST FINDINGS
In a critical response to Brunner’s report, Edward B. “Ned” Foley advised Brunner that her recommendation to count ballots centrally at Ohio’s 88 county BOEs was unwise, and that she should instead follow the Minnesota model for vote counting, which counts them twice, first at the precinct level then a second time at a central location to guard against Election Day shenanigans.
Foley, the Robert M. Duncan/Jones Day Designated Professor of Law at the prestigious Election Law @ Moritz (EL@M), a nonpartisan project whose mission is to provide reliable information on federal, state and local election law, noted in an Op-Ed article that in a recent study by his group of election systems in five Midwestern states, including Minnesota, Ohio was judged the worst of the lot.
I concluded that Minnesota historically has had the best practices, serving as a model for other states. In preparing for next November, Ohio would do well to emulate Minnesota's audit approach, rather than to stop counting ballots at the precinct before they may be recounted centrally. [Ned Foley]
Foley advocates recounts or audits as the preferred method to address concerns about potential counting errors including those caused by software sabotage. He also says that a mandatory audit of 10 percent of precincts is stricter than an initial audit of only three percent of precincts, no matter how close the margin of victory. Foley says state officials should gird now for next year’s presidential election turnout and plan for an “especially rigorous audit.”
The Ohio ACLU also chimed in Monday after the Cuyahoga County BOE met, saying that technological reforms Brunner is proposing could “inadvertently disenfranchise more Ohio voters in the upcoming 2008 elections.” Pointing to testimony given by Daniel Tokaji, a Cooperating Attorney with the ACLU and a colleague of Foley’s at EL@M, the group underscored its concern for quick changes and the disastrous effects it could have in Ohio.
"Ohio has very real concerns with the upcoming 2008 elections, but changing technologies to a method that has been proven to disenfranchise voters is not an adequate solution. Elections officials should focus on the human element, including training and procedures for those at the polls, in order to best impact elections." [Daniel Tokaji, ACLU/EL@MORITZ]
Tokaji said that making “hasty changes to voting technology before the 2008 election is, in my view, especially hazardous” and that switching to a centralized optical scanner system while making scanner available at each polling place for voters to check their work, as Brunner advocates, “is not at all clear that this would reduce the number of lost votes typically associated with central-county systems” and that he doubts it would “enhance security.”
He concludes by saying that in the short term, between now and the 2008 elections, “this county (Cuyahoga) and others would do better to focus on people and procedures, rather than attempting a risky and expensive overhaul of voting equipment.”
Adding more vinegar than sugar to Brunner's findings, Lawrence D. Norden, Director of the Voting Technology Assessment Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said her recommendations "could cause more problems than they solve."
Norden made his comments on EVEREST in Cleveland. He said without equivocation that should the the report's recommendations be instituted quickly and "without input from experts who have studied these issues for many years, they will almost certainly lead to serious problems in Ohio in the most complex election year of the four-year election cycle, potentially disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters in Cuyahoga County alone."
"Fortunately, Cuyahoga County and the state of Ohio can take immediate and relatively simple steps to strengthen the integrity of its elections without risking the chaos and disenfranchisement that are likely to result if Secretary Brunner’s recommendations are implemented without adequate study, input from experts, meaningful public education campaigns, and the development of entirely new election procedures.
"We believe that many of the Secretary’s recommendations warrant serious study. Others risk unnecessarily disenfranchising voters. None should be implemented unless they are first pilot-tested to be sure that they do not inadvertently create new problems.[Lawrence Norden, Brennan Center]
In a detailed and humorous post titled “1,000 pages of bad news” about Brunner’s report, author Jon Stokes lampoons her remark designed to soft soap the competence (or lack thereof) of her state’s election officials, who she credited with making Ohio elections run as “smoothly as they have in light of these findings.”
Stokes does just that when he chides Brunner’s report, saying it could just as easily been titled “Barn Door Left Open; Whereabouts of Horse in Doubt” because it seems to painstakingly avoid saying that Ohio’s elections have been compromised every since touch-screen machines running software have been used. “This isn't some glimpse of how bad things might be in November 2008. It's a look at how bad they've been all along,” he says.
Even The Columbus Dispatch, the capital city’s venerable conservative Republican newspaper that endorsed Brunner last year and that some say will give her all the rope they can before tugging back on it, suggested in a recent editorial that the “necessity, feasibility and costs of such changes should be discussed” and that the “stakes for Ohioans are too high for partisan bickering between the Democratic administration and the GOP-led legislature.”
Falling back on what every voter activist or election conspirator hates to hear but which, in the opinion of this reporter, is itself the fundamental flaw in how we vote, Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper said that “Every step of the voting process is subject to bipartisan scrutiny, including the handling of the voting machines and other preparations leading up to Election Day” and that “Elections officials must weigh the potential risks in light of that scrutiny.”
With partisan political parties in full control of our system of elections – America is unique among the world’s democracies in this respect – and with each BOE evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the incessant gridlock, back-biting and accusations endemic in such a system, which we see happening again with the EVEREST report, its an easy argument to make that conspiracies by one party are impossible because that would entail that the other party is part of the conspiracy.
But in today’s world of machines run by software that vendors create and control, winning elections not about massive fraud but about the skill and craft to tweaking elections in a few places. And because private vendors are hired to perform election services for BOEs and even the SOS, as it was under Ken Blackwell with GovTech, because they don’t have the technical competence or expertise to do it themselves, stealing an election need not really involve either party directly.
CUYAHOGA BOE UNDECIDED ON EQUIPMENT SWITCH
In coverage of its BOE and the recent discussion about whether to follow Brunner’s recommendations and ditch touch-screen machines for optical-scanning machines, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer the bi-partisan board split along partisan lines over the report’s advice that Cuyahoga switch out its equipment.
Early in the year, Brunner made her first big political splash when she up and fired the entire CCBOE, citing the finding of guilt by a judge of two BOE workers for finessing a recount as the base reason for her decision. As Ohio’s chief elections officer, Brunner placed the CCBOE under administrative oversight, as her authority allows. But she has repeatedly said she wants the new board members, two of whom he picked herself, to come reach consensus on decisions. But as the PD article points out, a spokesman for her office said “she could force the switch,” which would be another example of her heavy-handed, stubborn style of getting what she wants.
The Republicans on the board agreed that it mountains and rivers would have to be moved to convince them to install a new system before March. They also criticized Brunner for “suggesting Cuyahoga is the only county that can't run an election with touch-screen machines made by Diebold Inc.” when “more than 40 other Ohio counties use the machines.” Republican board member Rob Frost said it would be “irresponsible” for the CCBOE to “follow Brunner's recommendation and change equipment immediately.”
A new Democrat board member, one chosen by Brunner, a Democrat herself, is ready to make the switch. In her statement, Inajo Davis Chappell said, "Do we do nothing and hope that we have fewer crashes in March? We should not be afraid to implement change."
John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.
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