Thursday, February 26, 2009

How overzealous activists are misleading you regarding Rush Holt's bill

Your vote is seriously at risk, and we have possibly only the next two years to fix it. Two years into Bill Clinton's term, we lost Congress, and didn't gain it back until nearly twelve years later. So time is of the essence.

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'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.

Misrepresentation #1

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.

Misrepresentation #2

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.

Misrepresentation #3

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say, "The software functions that relate specifically to the vote counting process cannot be kept secret. The bill explicitly provides for its review."

Can you be more specific? Is the public going to be able to see the code?

If the review is only by certain government officials (I don't know if that is true or not), then I would call it secret.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

The software can be reviewed by anyone who has a sincere interest. There is no language in the bill limiting who can see it. Rather, the bill goes to great pains to ensure court injunctions cannot be used to stop a review of the code.

So it's not secret.

P.S. Someone else wrote asking for my name. Anyone who searches me on the Internet knows I am Lisa Pease. I have never tried to hide my identity. This was just a convenient username to use to help promote my site when I post on other people's blogs.

11:31 AM  
Blogger BradF said...

It's quite illustrative that Lisa didn't bother to link to any of the articles she attempts to dismantle, isn't it?

For those who might want the actual *truth* instead of Lisa's phony, and unsupportable spin (supporting her friends who work in Holt's office) please see the original material she's trying (but failing) to attack:

New Version of Holt's Election Reform Bill Would Institutionalize Touch-Screen Voting, Secret Software


BBV: New Holt Election Reform Bill Would Allow 'Surreptitious Dismantling of Self-Government'

...oh, and because Lisa apparently thinks you're idiots, who can't read for yourself, here's the actual bill in question [PDF], so you can decide for yourself.

If Lisa allows this to be posted, I'll be delighted.

(And to "Anonymous", no, the public doesn't get to see the code. Only those who are "approved" and who sign non-dislclosure agreements in the bargain. Lisa won't bother to share that kinda info with ya.)

Brad Friedman

2:48 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

I had planned to link to the bill. I wasn't going to bother linking to the post, but I wasn't trying to keep it from anyone, either. If people knew who you were, they knew where to find you, and if they didn't, all the better, since you have, wittingly or unwittingly, become a tool of those who would keep our vote secret, your public protestations to the contrary.

Here's what the bill actually says, which Brad is still truly lying about. That is, if he's actually read it. Last year, he admitted he didn't. Since it's the same bill, I suspect he hasn't read this one either. But I digress. Here's the relevant part:

(iii) A person not described in clause (i) or (ii) who reviews, analyzes, or reports on the technology solely for an academic, scientific, technological, or other investigation or inquiry concerning the accuracy or integrity of the technology.

In other words, ANYONE who is going to review and report on this, including Brad, could review the code. You just have to ask, and state your reasons, and show that your reasons fit the broad definition above.

Brad, that's on pages 13-14, in case you want to actually read that.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa is right.

The Holt bill, if passed, would cause a sea change in the way U.S. federal elections are run.

For the first time in US history, the public would have a legal right to:

1. view the voting software

2. view hand counts of paper ballots

3. have a right to use individual paper ballots

and states would be required to manually count ballots cast in federal elections in public sight after each election.

Also, Holt's audit requirements are better than *any* current post-election audit procedures in any state. Currently most states are conducting sham "audits" that never compare the hand counts of voter-verifiable paper ballot records with *any* publicly reported vote counts.

Holt's three election reform bills will provide a historic step forward in election transparency and institutionalize paper ballots and publicly observable hand counts and public access to voting software.

Lisa is right. For whatever reasons, Bev Harris and Brad Friedman are misleading people on the facts.

Read the bill for yourself so you can see how great it would be for US elections.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Brad wrote another comment, which I'll spare you. I don't put through comments that dare me to delete them. I'll take that dare every time.

He pointed out one thing worthy of bringing to your attention, however, so I'll share that. He said that he had quoted the same passage I just quoted. But where? I was responding to this post: and such text is nowhere to be found.

I thought, maybe Brad thought I had referenced the other post. I hadn't. And yes, he quotes that section in there. And then he ridiculously says the language doesn't allow "the general public" to review the code.

Any member of the general public who wishes to review the code may do so if they can prove they have a serious interest and will write up and share their findings. That's what the language says.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you point out also illustrates the danger of readers who may forget that bloggers like Brad who put out daily news reports aren't journalists.

Many professional journalists have been laid off, and America is losing objective news sources because of the failure of public corporate ownership. Readers too often overlook the difference between the real thing and activist accounts.

Last year, I read both Brad's take on the bill in the last session and Holt's bill. Brad declined to engage in a discussion about his rather hostile view, while Holt took my call and explained the disconnect with no hint of criticism of Brad.

I think you hit the nail on the head, Real History, in that it's impossible for Congress to set up a new system starting from scratch. Elections are a local responsibility, not a federal one, and local election districts have spent mostly local tax dollars, with some state and federal grants, for the mostly electronic systems we now have. These districts can't afford to start over and are the least likely place to rely on old-fashioned paper-only ballots.

I do agree with Brad and Bev that the software code can be buggered and can be hidden, but Holt's bill sets in place what may be enough disincentives to prevent the kind of proved electronic vote fraud we saw in 2000 and 2004.

Bottom line is that election polls aren't a federal function, so a federal bill can do only so much. I'm impressed with all the fraud scenarios Holt's bill tries to foil. It helps to have a scientist in Congress who can unwrap a problem with reason and not partisan passion.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a member of the voting public, I'd like to know who is looking at the software codes in the black box I vote on, and why.

What if KKKarl Rove has demanded to see the code? Wouldn't you want someone to ask him, "Really, oh really, why?"

And wouldn't you want a public record to show he looked at it, so you might have an "aha" moment when Marvin Bush wins in 2012?

I think Holt's bill is exactly in the interest of transparency to provide for screening those looking at the code AND A PUBLIC RECORD of who's looking at it.

9:08 PM  

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