Balkinization  

Monday, February 10, 2003

JB

Bush v. Gore and Electronic Voting Machines


Let me be clear about this: As a cyberlaw professor and a professor of constitutional law, I can unequivocally state that one of the biggest dangers to democracy right now is electronic voting machines. If they are designed properly, they can enhance democracy. But if they are designed poorly, they can facilitate ballot fraud on a scale previously unknown in American history.

The question is not whether electronic balloting is a good thing or a bad thing. It is what kinds of electronic balloting have built in safeguards and checks against electronic fraud, and what kinds don’t. The recently passed Help America Vote Act (HAVA), includes $3.9 billion to help state and local goverments install hi-tech upgrades to their voting technology. What is being overlooked is that not all electronic voting systems are created equal. Some of the ones on the market, perhaps even most, have serious flaws that enable unscrupulous people to alter vote counts and commit massive electoral fraud. Some also are designed to leave no electronic backup or paper trail that would enable state officials to discover vote tampering or conduct recounts.

This, my friends, is a disaster waiting to happen.

You can read about some of these problems here, here, and here.

Several bloggers have begun posting stories about the dangers of poorly designed electronic voting systems. They have been spurred on by revelations that Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel (R) had failed to disclose that he owns a stake in a company that owns Election Systems & Software (ES&S), a company that makes nearly half the voting machines used in the United States, including virtually all those used in his native Nebraska.

This conflict of interest has led a number of bloggers to speculate whether Hagel’s unexpectedly overwhelming victories in the Nebraska Senate race in 1996 and 2002 were due to artificial enhancements. They point out that ES&S's systems are among those which make it difficult if not impossible to discover electronic voter fraud and conduct recounts. I express no opinion on these speculations, but if you want more information, you can find discussions at Testify, Seeing the Forest, Alas, a Blog, Common Dreams, and Sideshow.

My apologizes to anyone else who posted stories on this issue that I overlooked.

As many of you know, I am a great critic of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush through a particularly unpersuasive argument about when to grant a stay and about what constitutes an appropriate remedy for violates of the Equal Protection Clause. However, I also have said in print that I don’t think that the opinion’s holding that the Equal Protection Clause applies to vote tabulations is all that crazy; in fact it makes some sense. It extends the guarantee of equal protection from how voting districts are drawn to how votes are tabulated.

I also pointed out two other things, however

1. One problem with Bush v. Gore’s equal protection holding is that it did not carry its equal protection reasoning to its logical conclusion. The greatest problem of equality may stem not from hand counts but from unequal access to technologies that produce different degrees of reliability in vote counts.

2. Bush v. Gore seems to be premised on suspicion that Florida judicial officials were not being consistent in their hand counts; i.e., the Court, without directly saying it, was suggesting that perhaps the inconsistencies were not random, but might be politically motivated.

Putting these two points together, I submit that if Bush v. Gore is not simply a device concocted by five Justices to put Republicans in office, it should also stand for the proposition that the states and the federal government may not install voting technologies with a high degree of unreliability or a significant risk of voting fraud if there are other, equally available technologies at roughly the same cost that are more reliable and have safeguards against voting fraud.

In other words, although I hate and despise the manipulation of remedies that produced the actual result in Bush v. Gore, I think that we should take the Equal Protection holding of Bush v. Gore completely seriously. And I think that state and local governments should too. They should immediately demand that the technology companies they deal with install fail safe mechanisms to ensure voting reliability and prevent voting fraud, and if these companies refuse to do so, on the grounds that their data is protected by trade secret or other intellectual property rights, these contracts should be voided on the grounds that states may not install unconstitutional voting systems.

I’m being quite hardnosed on this, but it’s important to be hardnosed. There are lots of flaws in the American system of elections, but most of these flaws only matter every now and then in very close elections, like the crazy rules about the Electoral College and what happens if nobody gets a majority in the Electoral College. But the problems that electronic voting machines present are likely to occur in virtually every election held in this country-- federal, state and local -- from this day forward. If we don’t want our democracy to become a mockery, we have to pay the extra cost now to make sure our voting technologies are safe and adequate for the future.


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