Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lessons from Cuyahoga and Harris Counties

Whose Elections? Our Elections?
By GREG MOSES

While the power of new voting technology was attracting a nationwide convergence of suspicion in the vote count reported for Ohio's Cuyahoga County, the very same software system was being put to troubling new uses in Harris County, Texas where hardly a word was uttered in reply.

Yet the power of software to politically manage votes and voters is not simply the power to produce vote totals, it also lies in the power of information technology to "discipline and punish" voting populations with increasing speed and efficiency.

In the case of Harris County, a small legislative district with unique political geography became a testing ground for the power of software to criminalize and discredit voters in the aftermath of a surprising vote count. Although a rare legislative contest failed to reverse a 33-vote defeat of a powerful Republican incumbent, the process of the contest did reduce the margin of victory for the Democrat. And the tactic of using new software to identify and pursue individual voters was added to the Republican playbook as yawning observers nodded.

Thanks to the recent addition of VOTEC Election Management And Compliance System or VEMACS (the same software package used in Cuyahoga County and ten other states) the Voter Registrar of Harris County was able to deliver with unprecedented speed and precision a list of 167 suspected illegal voters shortly after Republican attorneys charged that Democratic voters had illegally stolen the election.

The production and distribution of the Registrarís fat report was widely viewed as a normal and helpful thing to do in sorting out the facts of the election contest. However, according to documents supplied to the Texas Civil Rights Review, the Registrarís usual investigation of voter activity in major elections takes several months to complete, and does not target specific election contests. In the case of Houstonís HD 149, it is still not clear that anything motivated the special report apart from Republican allegations that the election had been stolen by illegal Democratic voters. Media-fed allegations of voter misconduct created an environment in which a historically unique report appeared as a normal and timely contribution.

In the end, hyped-up Republican charges against Democratic voters were not supported by the evidence. But the report produced by the Registrarís election software did enable an unprecedented invasion of voter privacy. Within a month following the release of the Registrar's report, about 150 voters had been served with subpoenas that demanded them to reveal their votes in the election contest. And about 110 voters eventually saw their votes deducted from the race. Was the interrogation of Houston voters in January the largest voter sweep in history? We hope so. Because the Harris County precedent warns us that where powerful software is available, there will be more voter sweeps to come.

And despite the outcome, the contest for House District 149 was conducted under circumstances favorable to an election reversal. As one official explained, the district is bounded on the Southwest side by a diagonal line that represents the longest county-line boundary given to any legislative district in the state. With election laws that draw hard lines against voters who cross county lines, the likelihood of out-of-county fouls was favorable from the start.

The Texas Civil Rights Review conducted a Mapquest review of addresses reported by 19 voters who were flagged by the Registrar in one borderline precinct. Seven of the voters continued to live within a mile of their old precinct. And for one of those voters, the Mapquest star that marks the voter's home touched the county line. On a TerraServer satellite image also, the red dot marking the voter's address virtually hugged the imaginary county line that cut diagonally through the neighborhood. Although the voter was subpoenaed and ordered to reveal his vote in the race, the Master of Discovery for the legislative contest Rep. Will Hartnett (R-Dallas) was unable to determine a clear answer as to how he voted.

A phone call to that voter remains unreturned. As I left a message with his spouse, she explained it was a busy night at home, and I could hear the sounds of happy children in the background. As with the homes of two other voters that I have contacted by telephone, I came away with the impression that voters do not want to extend their experiences of the election contest any further. Like any trauma of life, they prefer to move on. And the circumstances make it difficult for me to feel any pushier about getting their quotes. For this reason, I worry about the long term effects that these contests may have on voters who seem dispirited enough already.

There has been virtually no journalistic interest in reporting the experiences of approximately 150 voters who were served and deposed in the Republican-led contest (unless you count the Norwegian citizen who on his voter application listed his previous residence as Oslo, checked "not a citizen" and was given a voter card anyway for his George Bush Park precinct. His case was reported as a kind of absurd comedy, and his Republican vote was subtracted.)

But what about the two young women who were citizens but who neglected to find and check the citizenship box on applications that were laid out quite differently than the one filled out by our Norwegian resident above. The citizenship box on applications given the two women was separated from the field for all other information and placed into a section that appeared above and to the right. Although the two voters eventually submitted the proper checkmarks and voted on election day, their online registrations were re-dated during the month of January. Following merciless post-election review of their registration histories by Republican attorneys, the two women were disqualified for the crime of completing their registrations too late, and their Democratic votes were subtracted as illegal.

As voter activists from the Ohio campaign are calling for open-source codes and paper trails to help check the power of vote counting software, there should also be a response to the newfound power of post-election review. With the increasing ability of technology to monitor where voters actually reside, the antidote for post-election harassment would appear to lie in pre-election flexibility. Let voters register later, electronically, and with instant printouts that confirm completed applications. If a checkbox is crucial to registration, voters could be prompted to complete their forms in real time.

Furthermore, why not allow voters to access their proper ballots from any polling place? Why in this world of broadband interactivity should voters be told to drive around, when ballots can be delivered to them by keystroke? Rather than drift yawning into a future of technology built by and for the few, democrats can demand from Voter Registrars the kind of lightning quick responsiveness that enables, encourages, and motivates voters. In a world of digital power, Voter Registrars should feel pressure to make tools that work for voters, not against them, before during and after election day.

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