The Shelby County Election Commission "has demonstrated an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies," concluded the Tennessee comptroller's office in an audit triggered by the fiascos of the last two August elections.
Has the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) rebounded from these depths? I have participated in an email skirmish with members of the SCEC over the last few months which revealed startling information and provided a window into their ongoing dysfunction.
Specifically, we have discovered that: 1) the commission has the ability, previously denied, to perform manual recounts; 2) internally, the machines keep a duplicate record of the votes; 3) the commission either did not know of or chose not to use this capability; 4) the commission cannot state the likelihood that the TSX voting machines will accurately record a vote; 5) they are extraordinarily dependent on their voting machine vendor for even routine tasks, which wastes money; and 6) my raising these questions has yielded obfuscation, non-answers, and defensiveness.
I recently found a 2007 report claiming that the county's TSX voting machines keep internal images of ballots with a 25 percent error rate in manipulating these images. I forwarded this information to SCEC administrator Richard Holden. He referred the question to the vendor, Elections Systems & Software (ES&S). They did not provide any data on error rates but did state, "As you know, the units have the ability to print (post election) the ballot images for hand recounting, if so desired."
Duplicate records did exist. Discovering the machines had a capability to do manual recounts, something previously denied by the SCEC, was startling. Equally jarring was that such information, possibly of interest to those litigating the last few elections, had been available in the system all along.
Access only existed after the voting ended, however, so a paper trail would still not exist. This lack of a paper trail concerned many. Voters could not be sure that the machine accurately reflected their vote.
Concerns about these issues only heightened as computer scientists from Johns Hopkins, Rice, Berkeley, Princeton, and the Argonne National Laboratories began to report grave concerns about the security of these TSX machines. The SCEC ignored these reports, despite the reality that other states were decertifying TSX. They put their trust in the vendor.
I thought this discovery would be of great interest to the SCEC, and I have, in tandem with election commissioners Norma Lester and Anthony Tate and county commissioner Steve Mulroy, been trading emails with Holden. He professes not to know the probability of error on the machines used for voting in Shelby County, even though it is his responsibility to do pre-election testing.
Regarding using internal images for recounts, Holden asserts that the commissioners have "never deemed this feature necessary."
Technical support for the voting machines and tabulation process remains the province of ES&S, by contract. At the most recent SCEC meeting, it was revealed that an ES&S technician had access to the tabulation server without any supervising SCEC employee. The SCEC administration tried to minimize the significance of giving an ES&S employee unfettered access to the tabulation servers — something that would seem a major breach in election security.
The state division of elections should thoroughly examine the operations of the SCEC administration and mandate necessary changes, including those relating to personnel.
The SCEC should act immediately on county CIO John Halbert's suggestion that they start now amassing information to determine whether new voting machines are called for — and, as I and others have advocated, the best available alternatives would be optical scan machines with a voter-verifiable paper trail.
Further: The SCEC must thoroughly explore the utility of the internal images for recounts, testing, and audits as well as for any risks to voter privacy.
The SCEC must determine the probability of an error on our machines and make the results public.
The SCEC should report on lessons learned from the problems with the 2010 and 2012 elections and on any and all corrective actions taken.
The SCEC should establish standards for the prompt resolution of voter and candidate queries regarding voting irregularities.
Despite a long string of election problems, the SCEC administration’s poisonous combination of prideful arrogance and defensiveness remains unchanged. My recent experience should cause all of us to worry about their ability to make things right.
Joe Weinberg is a physician, activist, and student of the election process. A somewhat different version of this essay appeared in the Flyer's print edition.