In an e-mail to faithful readers of his blog The Left Wing Cracker, Steve Steffens wrote, "Events are occurring that could lead to a 'perfect storm' on August 3rd." He penned his dire message after it took the tech-savvy political activist 15 minutes to navigate the new Diebold touch-screen voting system and to complete an imposing ballot where 730 candidates compete in 149 races.
Since there are only 1,500 of the new voting machines and most of Shelby County's 600,000 registered voters aren't political nerds like Steffens, it doesn't take a mathematics professor to see why there might be reasons for concern. If it takes an informed voter 15 minutes to do his civic duty, even a 25 percent turnout could mean lots of long, slow-moving lines on Election Day. Should the turnout approach 30 percent, it could mean a full-fledged bottleneck at the polls.
Steffens' account doesn't even begin to factor in human error, legally questionable changes in the ballot's format, and the possibility of a technical meltdown.
When asked if Steffens was being over the top in his prediction of "a perfect storm," Tennessee election coordinator Brook Thompson said, "No. I think that's exactly right."
Rule of Law
For better or worse, at least two of Tennessee's election laws will be treated with a wink and a nudge this year. The first law requires that candidates' names appear in columns on the ballot, a request which the new computerized voting machines somehow can't accommodate. The second law requires that voters spend no more than five minutes in the voting booth if others are waiting and no more than 10 minutes otherwise.
"We're not going to throw anybody out of the voting booth," Thompson says, dismissing the notion that time limits will be imposed. If enforced, the law would put voters under incredible pressure. If ignored, candidates might complain that excessively long, possibly illegal waiting periods resulted in voter attrition.
"If someone wants to contest a close election, I can't stop them," Thompson says. "And I take issue with anyone who says the ballot isn't in accordance with the law."
According to the election official, there are legal provisions allowing for the certification of "nonstandard" voting equipment for transitional occasions.
Critics of Diebold's computerized voting machines claim that they are easily hackable. They charge that in recent elections the machines have failed to count votes, tallied votes incorrectly, given voters the wrong ballot, and reversed the outcome of elections. In 2003, Hinds County, Mississippi, had to hold its elections over again because so many of the machines failed.
"There are always glitches [in the system]," Thompson says. "But since the contested presidential election in 2000, every glitch is on the national news. I have every confidence the machines will work."
The glitches Thompson mentions are already being reported in Memphis. Last week, shortly after the opening of early voting, MemphisFlyer.com reported that judicial candidate Regina Morrison Newman had had her ballot switched.
"Despite having my correct precinct on the printout I signed, my machine showed me the race for House 86 (Barbara Cooper), instead of House 90 (John DeBerry)," Newman wrote.
Diebold's electronic voting machines have been controversial since the company's former CEO, Wally O'Dell, swore he'd deliver Ohio for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Over the past two years, concerns about the Diebold machines and other electronic systems have steadily moved from the realm of conspiracy theory and into the mainstream media. On July 13th, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court charging that various electronic-voting-machine companies, including Diebold, had fraudulently presented state election boards and the federal government with bad information.
Kennedy's suit further claims to have witnesses "centrally located, deep within the corporations," who will confirm his allegations.
Five days after Kennedy filed suit, polls opened for early voting in Georgia. Democratic congressional candidate Cynthia McKinney said she received calls from voters complaining that they'd seen the machines flip their votes to another candidate.
When asked about charges leveled at Diebold, Shelby County election commissioner Rich Holden says: "Prove it."
"A lot of people have made accusations," he says, "but nobody has proven anything."
Comparing Diebold's system to a similar system offered by the competing firm, ES&S, Holden says, "It was six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other, and both systems are excellent.
"When the federal government said they would make $6 billion or $7 billion available to buy new machines, there were only a half-dozen vendors that could go after that big pile of money. You've got to figure somebody's going to make a negative comment. Diebold was the largest, so they got the most negative comments."
Brad Friedman, the proprietor of Bradblog, one of the most extensive online collections of information concerning the Diebold controversies, and John Gideon of VotersUnite.org and Votetrust USA take issue with Holden.
"Diebold is probably number two behind ES&S," Gideon says. "[Holden's] statement doesn't even pass the common-sense test. What this guy is saying is that all of the computer scientists who are warning the nation about direct recording electronic voting machines and other insecure systems are all working for Diebold's competition."
"The warnings are not coming from within the industry," Gideon adds. "They all come from outside the industry."
Friedman offers a reminder that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), implemented after the electoral disaster in Florida in 2000, suggested but never actually mandated the purchase of electronic voting systems.
"One of the things that the voting-machine vendors did early on, in the run up to HAVA legislation, was to come together under the Information Technology Association of America, which is a lobbying group," Gideon says. "Through that alliance, they came up with talking points used by the vendors all over the country and by some of their paid allies. ... Election officials have been deluged with [these] statement[s], and after they buy the machines, they have to defend the false statements."
"They've found over 120 security risks in the [electronic voting] systems," Friedman says, citing a report from New York University's Brennan Center for Justice claiming that electronic voting machines like Diebold "pose a real danger" to election integrity. He runs down a list of lawsuits that have been filed in at least nine different states and declares, "You can't protect an election after the fact."
Commissioner Holden remains unconvinced.
"Look, if we took Microsoft Word to MIT and had computer-code experts analyze it, they would find so many holes in it," he says. "But we don't care about that. All we care about is results."
The Agony and the Irony
John Harvey, a law enforcement veteran and write-in candidate for sheriff, doesn't have much time to worry about faulty voting machines. His problems with the electoral system run much deeper. On his Web site,www.votinginmemphis.com, Harvey charges that Shelby County's voter rolls are still laden with out-of-district voters, felonious voters, and dead voters and that vacant lots are listed as residencies.
"HAVA says the rolls should be purged after two federal election cycles. That's four years," Harvey says. "I've pulled over 10,000 names of people who haven't voted in 10 years."
Two days after Steffens launched his e-mail warning, Harvey answered with a missive of his own. In a sarcastic press release, the underdog candidate issued simple, step-by-step instructions for all those Mid-Southerners interested in voting often.
So what do you get when you combine the longest ballot in Tennessee history with a new voting system, a potentially illegal ballot, new, possibly unreliable machines, and voter confidence shattered by recent accounts of dead voters? Well, we're not quite sure, but as the old joke goes, it's crawling up your back.