How overzealous activists are misleading you regarding Rush Holt's bill
There's a very good bill that, while not perfect, moves the ball very far down the field toward a victory of an accurate and transparent vote, at least at the federal level.
But overzealous activists are already stretching the truth past the breaking point in their criticisms of it.
Look. The first test of whether someone is a useful activist, or even a good person, for that matter, is whether they tell the truth. Whether by ignorance or design, some of the leading voices in the election activist community are failing that test.
A lot of people follow others unquestioningly simply because they don't know they are being hoodwinked. I see it on the Web frequently - a mass stampede when a few voices speak out in a certain direction. I've always admired those who are not afraid to stand against the herd, to point out when the conventional wisdom is wacko.
In the electronic voting community, two voices speak very loudly, and have a lot of reach: Bev Harris, and Brad Friedman. Both have done some very excellent work reporting on election problems. But both have also proven abominable at reviewing and commenting on proposed legislation, and their ignorance and overblown hysteria is truly hurting the election reform movement.
Right now, nearly 1/4 of all voting jurisdictions are using DRE machines that have no voter-verified auditable permanent paper trail. I won't take the time here to explain how dangerous that is. If you don't understand this, search "DRE hack" in Google and self-educate before you read the rest of this.
For the last three Congressional terms, a brave little team in Rush Holt's office has been diligently trying to find a way to protect our elections from hacking. Each session they have introduced a bill to protect elections. Each time, opposing interests, which include Republicans, voting machine vendors, those with an agenda to steal elections, and, sadly, Brad Friedman and Bev Harris, have banded together to defeat it. Pretty odd company, don't you think?
I wouldn't mind if their objections were based on fact. But their objections are based in large part on an inaccurate reading of the bill, as I will show you.
Let's start with the headline. Brad's blog screams a quote from Bev Harris:
BBV: New Holt Election Reform Bill Would Allow 'Surreptitious Dismantling of Self-Government'
Can we all agree that screaming hyperbole never helped any progressive cause? Good. I knew we could start there. But it gets worse.
I've read the new Holt election bill. Many of those decrying it have not. And that's unfortunate. If they read the bill for themselves, I wouldn't need to be here pointing out just how inaccurate Brad and Bev's rantings on this bill have been.
This Brad/Bev post needs to be broken down line for line so people understand just how factually inaccurate it is. Unfortunately, I don't have that kind of time. But for a sample, look at this: a mere seven words in the first paragraph make three dramatic misrepresentations.
Brad opens with this:
From BlackBoxVoting.org's Bev Harris, on the section of the new Election Reform bill being proposed in the U.S. House by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), which would federally institutionalize secret software for vote counting, and the requirement of non-disclosure agreements for those who are lucky enough to be allowed permission to examine it...
Let's see what Brad (quoting Bev) just accused the bill of doing, in seven words:
1. Federally institutionalizing secret software for vote counting.
Seven words. Three misrepresentations.
The software functions that relate specifically to the vote counting process cannot be kept secret. The bill explicitly provides for its review. Now bear in mind that vote counting programs are often built on top of "off the shelf" (OTS) software, like Microsoft Windows, the code of which is exempt from disclosure.
What does this mean?
Well, if you were a programmer, you'd know that you can't change OTS software, but you can write the code that interacts with it. Everything you write has to be disclosed.
For nonprogrammers, think of this as an analogy. Think of the OTS software as a dunking machine. Your code is the ball you can throw at it to trigger the dunking mechanism. But your ball and your throw will not change the internal workings of the dunking machine.
To carry forward the analogy, let's say someone wanted to program the dunking machine to drop the currently seated person after every fifth throw. The "vote" would be "rigged." But the problem with that is that Microsoft Windows and all that other OTS software is written and released long before ballot order is set. What if the machine dunks the wrong person? How would one build in code?
It could be done, but not undetectably so. The rigging depends on the toss of the ball, and the programming for that side of the equation must be disclosed, per Holt's bill. If the code that CAN be inspected needs to trigger something special in a special circumstance, that would be detectable to a knowledgeable observer.
People have also mentioned code that would be self-deleting after it runs. That's possible to do, but not possible to hide, to the savvy observer.
So Brad and Bev's first point is simply not true. But let's continue.
Holt's bill does not "institutionalize" "secret software for vote counting" either. Many provisions in the bill leave the door wide open for an open source solution to election code. There's nothing secret about open source code.
HAVA already "institutionalized" computers counting our vote in such a way that they could not be audited, as with DRE ("Direct Recording Electronic") machines. Holt's bill will end the use of DREs in elections, for starters. That one fact alone should make it worthy of support.
In reality, nothing is ever "institutionalized" by a bill. The U.S. Code of Law is amended almost daily by laws passed in Congress. The Holt bill itself amends a portion of the bill that was added to the U.S. Code through the misnamed "Help America Vote Act." Holt's bill corrects mistakes made in HAVA.
Even the last two words in those seven, "vote counting," are referenced in a misleading fashion. Brad and Bev want you to believe that your vote is ONLY counted by these secret computers programs (which, as we see, aren't even secret, if Holt's bill passes).
But the reality is, Holt's bill requires two things we don't have currently at the federal level: voter verified permanent paper ballots, and an audit, i.e., a hand count, of those paper ballots. In addition, no election can be certified until at least a portion of the voting districts have been counted by hand.
A typical Congressional district has, as a very loose average and for the sake of simplicity, roughly 400 voting counts/precincts/townships/buckets) into which votes are cast and counted. Holt's bill would require a percentage of those buckets of votes to be counted 100% by hand. In other words, this is an apples-to-apples audit, a complete recount of selected precincts.
This sort of an audit has 100% chance of catching fraud or error if either occurred in any of those districts.
The mandated audits are conducted on a tiered scale. The closer the vote, the higher the percentage of precincts to count by hand. The greater the margin of the victory, the fewer precincts are needed to statistically turn up error.
Holt's bill says that an election cannot be certified until the audit has transpired.
In short, no federal election could be certified unless and until a percentage of the paper ballots had been counted by hand. So if Holt's bill institutionalizes anything, it's hand counted paper ballots, not secret software, as the hand count trumps the machine count, per specific language in the bill.
In the past, because we have no such legislation to date, paper ballots have been discounted by some courts in favor of the computer record. Holt's bill would reverse that completely, specifying in clear language that the voter-verified paper ballot is the legal ballot of record (unless it can be convincingly shown that the paper ballots had been tampered with. And even in that case, the Holt bill explicitly states that the electronic count cannot be the sole determiner of the election.)
BooMan has been ranting of late how some progressives are stretching the truth in an attempt to make points. The same holds true for some election activists.
We must be honest with each other, and should not try to propagandize each other. We should focus not only on what's ideal, but on what is actually possible, and work for that. That's how activists get things done in this country.
Hyperbole and sarcasm never got any bill passed. We have to take what we can get and then keep reaching for more. Nowhere is this more true than in our quest for honest elections.
If you feel tempted to defend Brad or Bev, ask yourself where the bill they DO support is. Nowhere. There is no other boat coming. It's this bill or more DREs, more unauditable elections. I, for one, will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case.