The public administration of elections is the fundamental basis for the freedom and fairness of our elections.  Without government control of elections and public scrutiny of the process, establishing the legitimacy of election results is not possible.  Publicly administered elections were until recently an unchallenged aspect of our democracy.  However, the move to computer systems to administer elections and the swift, federally-funded adoption of these systems has led to a privatization of many election functions.

Electronic voting machines are the most visible aspect of our voting systems that has been privatized.  Machine vendors insist on maintaining the privacy of both the hardware and software that they are selling or renting to states.  This is extremely dangerous to the security of our elections.  Without having access to the "guts" of the machines, there is no way to analyze machine errors or to determine how secure the machines are.  These private voting systems have caused serious problems.

Florida's 18,000 Missing Votes: In the case we mentioned earlier from Sarasota, Florida, both the loser of the race and a group of voters brought separate lawsuits seeking access to the voting machines and the software responsible for the 18,000 lost votes.  Both were denied access based on a claim by the Election Systems and Software Company that the machines and their software are trade secrets.  The court upheld the privacy rights of the corporation over the right of the people to a fair election.

New Jersey Voters Battle Sequoia: During this year's presidential primary, machines in 37 New Jersey counties recorded vote totals that did not match with summary tapes of the votes cast.  When county clerks tried to have a Princeton University computer scientist examine the machines, both the clerks and the professor were threatened with a lawsuit by the machine manufacturer.  In the face of a lawsuit the clerks dropped their efforts to have the machines examined.  A group of government reform advocates then filed a lawsuit to have the machines declared unreliable, and as a result of that lawsuit a judge has ordered that the machines be examined by independent computer professionals.

While the report based on that examination is forthcoming, another computer scientist purchased some of the machines through a government auction and has determined that they can easily be hacked.

Other parts of the election system have also been privatized in some states, including statewide voter registration databases and the poll books that contain the list of eligible voters.  In two instances from this past presidential primary, Georgia had numerous reports by voters that electronic poll books, made by Premier Election Solutions, were crashing and inoperable, leading to long lines and citizens leaving polling sites without casting ballots; in the New Mexico Democratic presidential caucus, a flawed voter registration database prepared for the state by the Elections Systems & Software Company led to thousands of voters' names not appearing on the voting rolls.

Principles of Public ElectionsVoter Action is the lead organization responding to the increasing privatization of our election systems.  In addition to paper ballots and post-election audits, they have identified the following as essential aspects of keeping public control over elections:

  • Open-source voting systems.  Even with voter-marked paper ballots, citizens must know that their right to vote overrides any alleged trade secret of a private corporation. When votes are counted in secret by private companies, the integrity of the process suffers.  All voting systems in the United States should be required to adhere to open-source standards.
  • Public oversight.  Public control of our elections is dependent upon an active, engaged citizenry monitoring the electoral process.  Grassroots networks across the country have already helped to expose key voting-rights barriers that threaten the integrity of our elections.  With even greater sunlight, we can help ensure that our elections are open, transparent, free, and fair.

Given the broader scandals in privatization of public services, it makes no sense to entrust our most fundamental right to vote to private companies that hide behind "trade secrets" and other corporate laws to escape accountability.

Voter Action - Our Voting Re-public
Progressive States Network - Privatizing in the Dark: The Pitfalls of Privatization