Sunday, May 20, 2007

Your vote at risk: why you must care about HR 811

There’s a very important bill that will reach the floor of the House of Representatives soon. Its very importance may well be the reason you haven’t heard of it. The political and media forces that brought us an illegal, insupportable, and immoral war in Iraq can hardly be counted on to tell you how best to protect your vote.

HR 811, sponsored by Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) and cosponsored by half the members of Congress, is a bill that protects the very essence of our democracy: the ability to verify that our votes are counted accurately.

Right now, in many states, we don’t have a way of verifying that our votes are counted accurately. In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest our vote has been compromised since the advent of computerized vote counting. In the past, we had punchcards and optical scan ballots – hard paper records indicating how we voted. Whether the contents of those ballots were reflected in the original count is anyone’s guess. But they were there, available for a recount.

Many states use Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines that do not produce any kind of paper record of the vote that a voter can verify. In other words, there’s no way to audit your vote, to know if the digital record accurately reflects your vote. HR 811 would require that all machines—no matter the system—use or produce a printed paper ballot that the voter can verify and that can be used to verify the accuracy of electronic vote counts. The bill says, explicitly:
The voting system shall require the use of or produce an individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot of the voter's vote that shall be created by or made available for inspection and verification by the voter before the voter's vote is cast and counted.
That’s a huge step forward, and enables recounts based on something the user had the chance to verify.

But what if the vote was recorded incorrectly and no recount was requested? That’s where audits come in.

Most of us use ATM machines frequently. Why aren’t we afraid of trusting our money to computers? Because we can personally audit where our money goes and ensure that transactions appear correctly. Banks trust them because they can audit the records too.

So it’s not that we need to fear computer systems in the handling of our vote. We need to fear unaudited computer systems.

Holt’s bill, HR 811, provides for substantial audits. California is one of the few states with a mandatory audit on the books. But the audit rate, 1%, is not enough to catch small scale vote alteration. Holt’s bill provides for a minimum 3% audit and requires up to a 10% audit on a sliding scale, depending on how close the vote is. The closer the vote, the more records need to be audited.

Some electronic voting activists want the ballots to be counted by hand, on paper. But in the past, when elections were done in that manner, there was a different kind of vote fraud. Voting officials could add or remove paper records between the closing of the polls and the count to get the desired result. In that sense, a computer vote—if and only if backed up and double-checked by rigorous hand-counted audits—may actually make us safer.

So what is this audit, exactly?

Under Holt’s bill, in federal elections (e.g., races for Congress, for Senate seats, and for President), states would have to audit at least 3% of the precincts, chosen at random, in full. In other words, under the supervision of an independent State election auditor, election officials would be required to recount 100% of the paper records in a minimum of 3% of the precincts. In closer races, that percentage goes as high as 10%. Holt’s bill HR 811 makes it clear that the voter verified paper record, not the electronic record, will be considered the true and correct record of the voters vote in the case of discrepancies between the hand count and the electronic count.

In an earlier version of the bill, if one had demonstrated that a sufficient number of paper ballots had been compromised to change the result, one could challenge the primacy of the paper records. But the bill that will be sent to the floor for a vote now says that in that circumstance, the electronic tally cannot be the sole determining record in an audit. In other words, there is a huge incentive now for registrars to ensure that the paper ballots are carefully preserved and kept safe so as not to be compromised.

A version of the bill introduced in a prior Congress gave a body appointed by the president, the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) power over certain aspects of the audits. The earlier version of the bill would have extended the EAC’s lifetime. Many activists are concerned that a body appointed by the president (even though the body has to be bipartisan and confirmed in the Senate) could spell disaster for elections. In the bill that is going to the floor for a vote, the authorization for the EAC is no longer extended, and its ability to influence election outcomes is dramatically reduced.

The bill assures that people with disabilities can cast a vote on equipment that allows them to hear or feel their vote ‘read’ back to them via an electronic device. In the original version of the bill, the money appropriated to support the inclusion of such machines across the country was $300 million. Many activists complained that that figure was too low. In the version of the bill going to the floor for a vote, the amount has been increased to $1 billion, enough to cover the additional expense.

Some activists groups have been split on this issue, with many supporting the bill, even in its earlier form, and some vehemently opposed. Bev Harris of Black Box Voting, Paul Lehto, and Nancy Tobi strongly oppose this bill because they don’t want computers controlling our elections. They’re idealists.

I’m a realist. If we don’t pass this bill by summer, we’re not going to be able to do anything in time for the 2008 election. And if we don’t support this bill in its present, most robust form ever, it’s going to get weakened. Sadly, the activists named above and their supporters have banded together with secretaries of state and election supervisors to stop this bill from coming to a vote. HR 811 had been scheduled for a floor vote this week (the week of May 21) but is now awaiting a new place in the schedule.

If this bill goes back to committee, it may well suffer a death-blow for the cause of election reform. The first things to go will be the 2008 deadline and the audit provisions. Election officials do not want the time or expense of having to conduct the extensive but necessary audits required by HR 811. Our officials expect voters to trust the vendors and the privatized counts, instead of going the extra mile themselves.

Many election officials do not recognize that there is a problem. They want to keep paperless electronic voting machines that make audits and recounts meaningless. Election officials would rather we just trust the vendors and the privatized counts.

I don’t believe in faith-based voting. I believe in backing statements up with evidence. I believe if a computer says Candidate A won, that the paper ballots should be counted to back that up. HR 811 gives us that. Sinking HR 811 does not give us anything. In fact, those who think hand counted paper ballots are the only way to go should absolutely be supporting HR 811, because the audits will give them the hard data to strengthen their case.

Having read several versions of this bill, including its earlier incarnations in past sessions, I can say with great confidence this is the best Federal bill I’ve seen on this issue. It gives us maximum protection with a minimum of interference from the federal level. It provides enough money to get the protections in place, and enough time so that election officials in completely paperless jurisdiction can have the fundamental requirements of paper ballots and accessible ballot verification in place by November 2008, and jurisdictions that already produce or use paper ballots can have any necessary upgrades done by 2010.

If you don’t want to see a repeat of the 2000 election debacle, or a repeat of the concerns of whether the vote was conducted and counted honestly in Ohio and other swing states in the 2004 election, then you really must get behind this bill now.

If this bill does not pass, the forces arrayed against us will take heart and grow even bolder. They will continue to give us paperless elections, more appropriately deemed “faith-based voting.” They could be altering the votes at the machine level, and without the HR 811 provisions paper ballot and audit provisions, we would have no way of knowing if the votes had been manipulated.

Can you imagine what would happen in this country if we allow our vote to remain so vulnerable to error and fraud?

No other issue comes close in importance to this issue. If our vote is taken from us, our positions on other issues will mean nothing. Only when our vote is protected can we take on the powers that be and show them that the American people who vote rule the country. If our vote is gone, only those with the money to ‘buy’ elections will have their votes counted.

Please. This couldn’t possibly be more serious. The very foundation of our democracy is at stake. Nothing you do in your life may ever be as important as the actions you take this week. We need another American revolution and we need it right now. Would you rather pick up a pitchfork or the phone?
What You Can Do

1. Call or Fax your representative today. Ask for their position on HR 811. If they are not in support, urge them to get behind it. If they are already in support, thank them for helping save our Democracy.

To find out who your representative is, and how to reach them by phone or fax, go to and follow the instructions to find your representative. You’ll be asked for your ZIP code, to start.

CALL or FAX. Do not use the email system, as they get so many mails there can be a several week lag before your message is read, and by then the vote will have come and gone. Don’t send a postcard. Mail is delayed by at least a week for security screening purposes.

2. Call or FAX your Secretary of State. Ask the same question. If they are not in support, let them know how you feel. Secretaries of State are supposed to represent you, since you elected them.

Find your Secretary of State’s contact information here:

3. Call or FAX the election official in your county. If they are not in an elected position, find the elected official they report to and call or fax that person as well. Usually, a County Supervisor will be the one who approves budgets for elections and election equipment.

Find your local election official’s contact information here:
Thank you in advance for doing your part to save our Democracy.

Lisa Pease
Former computer programmer and statistics tutor
Lifelong activist and author

Additional Resources:

The full CURRENT text of HR 811:

Summary information about HR 811:

The status of the bill and cosponsors can be found here (make sure the last character in this link is a colon or it will not work – some readers will strip that out and you’ll have to type the colon into the browser manually):

This document, while out of date in terms of the current legislation, summarizes the dangers posed by unverified electronic voting: Electronic Voting: America’s Vote At Risk

Quotes from HR 811

Regarding voting on paper, even when using DREs (touch screen machines):

"The voting system shall require the use of or produce an individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot of the voter's vote that shall be created by or made available for inspection and verification by the voter before the voter's vote is cast and counted.

"For purposes of this subclause, examples of such a ballot include a paper ballot marked by the voter for the purpose of being counted by hand or read by an optical scanner or other similar device, a paper ballot prepared by the voter to be mailed to an election official (whether from a domestic or overseas location), a paper ballot created through the use of a ballot marking device or system, or a paper ballot produced by a touch screen or other electronic voting machine, so long as in each case the voter is permitted to verify the ballot in a paper form in accordance with this subparagraph.”

Regarding the primacy of the paper record over the electronic one:
“In the event of any inconsistencies or irregularities between any electronic vote tallies and the vote tallies determined by counting by hand the individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballots produced pursuant to [the section quoted above], the individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballots shall be the true and correct record of the votes cast.”

Regarding mandatory, hand counted audits in 3-10% of the voting districts, chosen on a surprise basis:

"...each State shall administer, without advance notice to the precincts selected, audits of the results of elections for Federal office held in the State (and, at the option of the State or jurisdiction involved, of elections for State and local office held at the same time as such election) consisting of random hand counts of the voter-verified paper ballots...."

"In the event that the unofficial count as described in section 323(a)(1) reveals that the margin of victory between the two candidates receiving the largest number of votes in the election is less than 1 percent of the total votes cast in that election, the hand counts of the voter-verified paper ballots shall occur in at least 10 percent of all precincts or equivalent locations (or alternative audit units used in accordance with the method provided for under sub section (b)) in the Congressional district involved (in the case of an election for the House of Representatives) or the State (in the case of any other election
for Federal office)."

The language repeats twice more with different numbers. If the difference between candidates or ballot issues is between 1-2%, then 5% of the districts will be audited.

If the difference between the two candidates or ballot issues is more than 2%, then the audit will be conducted in 3% of the districts.


Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Kathy Dopp and other activists put together a rebuttal to key activist concerns re HR 811. I strongly encourage people to read it.

9:03 PM  

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