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
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
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
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 Elections: Voter 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 is a national non-profit organization that seeks to ensure election integrity in the United States through legaladvocacy, research, and public education. We aim to protect an openand transparent election process, one in which our elections at thefederal, state, and local level are accessible and verifiable. Wesupport the basic civil and political rights of all voters to casttheir ballots in an independent manner and to have to their votesaccurately recorded and counted. We seek to reclaim our elections forthe public domain, controlled by the voters and not by privateinterests.
The 2000 presidential election propelled America's problems with our
elections into the national spotlight in an unprecedented way.
Americans, night after night, watched news stories exposing the many
problems that are routine in elections but that receive little
attention: confusing ballots that lead people to mark their vote for
the wrong candidate, voter suppression aimed at minorities through
voter registration purges, and weary election officials trying to
discern voters’ intent on ambiguously marked punch card ballots.