Are Arizona's Political Leaders Deliberately Blocking Electronic Voting Machine Transparency?

Monday, 23 August 2010 09:47 By Denis G Campbell, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Are Arizona
(Photo: athrasher)

Why did Arizona's two main gubernatorial candidates, Gov. Jan Brewer, former secretary of state/head of elections, who contracted for highly criticized and easily-hacked Diebold and Sequoia ballot scanning systems, and Attorney General (AG) Terry Goddard, with his three-year "criminal investigation" into a 2006 Pima County (Tucson) local election allegedly hacked, according to a whistleblower, do everything in their power for years to stifle polling accountability while expensively fighting enforcement of Arizona's election laws?

"The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything." - Joseph Stalin

Arizona voters head Tuesday 24 August to primary polling places. They will mark paper ballots that will be optically scanned by Diebold and Sequoia vote scan machines. And there is absolutely no guarantee their vote will ever be tabulated.

Six plaintiffs recently filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County (Phoenix) alleging recently relaxed ballot handling rules ensure a lax chain of control over ballot papers in direct violation of Arizona law. Coupled with unapproved software installed on multiple election department computers, and it creates what the citizen watchdog group AUDIT AZ calls an "interlock." "This makes manipulation of vote counting easy and thus leaves elections vulnerable to undetectable fraud."

Arizona public officials confidently claim their system is completely safe from hackers. Yet, Maricopa County is the USA's fourth-largest elections department handling 56-58 percent of all Arizona votes cast. Its polling places rely on 22, sole-purpose laptop computers and their phone line modems to transmit final polling data from the Sequoia machines to election headquarters over phone lines and the Internet.

If CIA and Defense Department sites are hacked thousands of times daily, what, besides desert bravado or blind arrogance, gives anyone any indication their vote is safely counted?

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As AUDIT AZ co-founder John Brakey told us, "Lax handling of ballots and decisions relieving poll-workers of audit responsibility mean, regardless of the wishes of individual voters, the entire system can be manipulated and outcomes determined on central tabulation computers with expert hackers who are then able to completely cover their tracks."

And before you take Governor Brewer's or AG Goddard's (neither of whom would answer questions posed over three years by this reporter) tack of ignoring the message and instead attacking the messenger, dismissing all charges as baseless conspiracy theory ... ask yourself why Arizona's elected and unelected leaders (who all took a forced, unpaid, furlough day Friday to save money) have spent more than $1 million tax dollars hiring high-profile law firms to fight citizen-filed lawsuits from multi-partisan groups seeking ballot handling reforms?

Bill Risner, Democratic Party attorney for Pima County, is no stranger to election procedure battles. In 41-years of practice, he says the central problem of the current computerized systems is they are easy to cheat. "When the fact of 'easy to cheat' is combined with the 'impossibility of challenge' and 'nobody is looking,' the seriousness of the present vulnerability of our election system is obvious," he says.

Brad Roach, unsuccessful Republican candidate for Pima County attorney and lead counsel on the voter case said, "John Brakey and I are as politically opposite as you can find and would not likely agree on anything, but we agree on this." He describes Brakey as being as passionate as any death penalty opponent crusader he's ever met. "John's devoted years to this and we should thank him. While we disagree on most things political, he's absolutely right, your vote is the most important thing any citizen has," said Roach.

Roach further said he cannot fathom why elected leaders don't understand that "when you fight, fight, fight everything, you make things worse and it serves no utility." He continued, "If you have nothing to hide, why not just be open on something this important?"

He is suing the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and others requesting "Mandamus" and Injunctive Relief. The Mandamus action is unique in that it demands the court order public officials to follow existing Arizona election laws.

Plaintiffs want to ensure the entire ballot chain of custody is secure and Arizona's mandated audit trail is returned to full compliance, no matter how inconvenient or time consuming, to ensure integrity in the voting process.

The case was recently assigned its second judge. In a Friday telephone hearing, Judge Oberbillig, County Defense Attorney Colleen Conner and Roach all agreed nothing could be done in time for the primary election on Tuesday.

However, the Mandamus action falls outside of cumbersome civil trial rules and the judge said there was time to move forward with an expedited jury trial and emergency orders issued from the bench before the November general election.

Said Roach, "How patriotically ironic is it that on a question as important as insuring everyone's individual vote is counted, a jury of one's peers will decide the merits of this case?"

But what, if anything, can stop the arrogance of Arizona's elected and unelected leaders?

When Governor Brewer was secretary of state, she wrote the rules for voting machines across the state, however, when questioned repeatedly about them, claimed she had no authority to change the rules or order new ones.

The bar in Arizona for any recount is already higher than in almost every other states, with a minuscule one-tenth of 1 percent margin and inside five days the standards to trigger a recount. Miss either milestone and no recount can ever be granted.

Indeed, during a 2004 primary election between two Republicans decided by just four votes, officials were ready to begin a hand recount of all paper ballots, at their own expense, to ensure accuracy. Secretary Brewer called the local supervisor of elections and informed them they were "breaking state law and ordered them to stop." The only way to count ballots under Arizona law was to rerun them through the same machine that had already spit out this data. Jan Brewer explained on video she stopped the recount because "an angel was on her shoulder and guided her in the right direction."

In the second machine run, 496 extra ballots magically appeared inside one machine's "count" that were not part of the first ballot. Maricopa Elections Supervisor Karen Osborne under deposition stated, "an 18 percent error rate in machine tabulations was within their acceptable margin of error." What citizen would volunteer their ballot to be one of the nearly one in five miscounted in that "acceptable margin of error"?

Across Arizona, there is a pattern of refusal to cooperate with voter groups. Elected officials refuse to return phone calls asking for comment, ignore or obfuscate Freedom of Information Act requests for information and, later, even ignore judge's orders. And there seems to be zero consequences for state workers. To date, no one has been fired, reprimanded or reassigned for incompetence for any of these bungled elections.

Even when brought into court, the rank incompetence causes judges to throw their hands up in disgust, resulting in convoluted rulings. Two years ago, Bill Risner won all of the legal argument, but lost his case when Maricopa County Judge Edward O. Burke agreed County Elections Director, Karen Osborne, did not follow election law, ensure ballot integrity and provide an unbroken custody chain.

However, he ruled against the plaintiffs saying, "in a county the size of Maricopa, perfect compliance with the statutory electoral scheme, while desirable, is not possible due to time, space, the practicalities of the electoral process and the number of persons involved" in denying their injunction for a hand recount.

So, where does the voter go to ensure the accuracy of their vote count? Well, one could try voting in the UK as an example. There, the hand vote count performed across 650 parliamentary constituencies during the recent general election was a model of efficiency and accuracy.

This reporter covered Wales' Vale of Glamorgan constituency hand count. The result was declared final at 2:23 AM, with congratulations all around. It was completely transparent. All votes were counted across the nation in exactly the same way, with party observers and even candidates sitting directly across the table from and silently observing the counting teams throughout the night. Too, there was no artificial time pressure of reporting vote results on the 11:00 PM news. They were committed to getting it right.

The sanctity of one person, one vote, unites otherwise deeply divided and polarized Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Tea and every other party. So, why won't a Republican governor and a Democratic AG, both seeking the state's highest office, demand transparent accountability by state officials?

AG Goddard has led a "Keystone Cops" criminal investigation of the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) election. Bill Risner sued Pima County, demanding a recount (and they are the party that WON!), trying to assure vote integrity as the result made no sense. How could a measure they supported suddenly win after losing so badly in every previous election?

When a whistleblower came forward saying the election result had been hacked, AUDIT AZ entered the fray. In the original UK Progressive article on this subject, they alleged and proved a Pima County election official had purchased an illegal scanner. Election Director Brad Nelson admitted in a deposition he wanted to test for himself whether ballot scanning machine memory cards could be hacked as demonstrated by Finnish scientist Harry Hursti in the HBO film "Hacking Democracy."

And boy did they test. (The question remains ... until they got it right?) Seventy plus machine memory cards were reported as "damaged." Hacking enough voting machine memory cards to affect an outcome before an election is clearly difficult. The more ingenious way is, as alleged in Risner's case documents, to break into the central tabulator using a simple and untraceable Microsoft Access table. This instantly changes results inside headquarters and leaves no trail.

And this was four years ago, imagine how sophisticated hackers have become since 2006 (placing a full PacMan game on one "sealed" machine being but one example.)

Risner asserts one can determine if the RTA ballot results were hacked by reviewing the polling summary tape totals included with the ballots from the poll site and comparing them with the actual paper ballots from each polling location. A furious legal battle, costing Pima County hundreds of thousands of dollars, ended when AG Goddard's team swooped in and removed the ballots to an undisclosed location from a storage facility in Tucson. He then did his own recount without reconciling the poll tapes and declared the result final.

The problem? Almost one-third of the poll summary tapes, supposedly stored with the ballots, were reported "missing" at the time of his count. No one knows and the AG will not answer whether they were missing when he conducted his recount or before. Too, Pima County officials as "the customer," were allowed unfettered access to the ballot storage facility despite being implicated in the criminal investigation. And the logs of who visited the facility have not been released by the AG.

The issue has been stonewalled because, according to a local attorney wishing to remain anonymous, "by implication, the AG's office ends up looking either incompetent or complicit in a cover-up. With the election just 10-weeks away, the impact it could have on Goddard's election chances to the only office he has coveted since childhood, would be devastating."

Aside from immigration reform, economic loss issues around the "Paper's Please" law and an increasingly radical right-wing agenda, any further light on her otherwise anonymous tenure as secretary of state would create more problems for Governor Brewer's re-election campaign.

The irony is Democrat Goddard may end up hoisted on this petard and never know for certain his own ballot count fate since the rules change makes it easier for heavily Republican and lax-on-security Maricopa County officials to find results that favor Governor Brewer's re-election bid.

No matter what happens, democracy could be the ultimate casualty. As I wrote after the '08 general election for The Huffington Post, with the Maricopa recount case and result, was it possible Arizona's John McCain actually lost his own red state when every other state touching Arizona voted FOR President Obama?

Connecting electoral dots, Phoenix (Maricopa 56-58 percent) and Tucson (Pima 18-22 percent) account for roughly 75 percent of votes cast in any Arizona election. Evidence also exists that Pima County election department staff frequently accessed the early "vote by mail" official count database. Imagine the impact of this "Zogby poll from hell" as John Brakey calls it. "Illegally passing along actual early vote totals to party insiders allows them to conduct a series of Robocall and other campaign activities that could sway voters based not on research or polls but on actual vote counts!"

Arizona is no stranger to election controversy. Paper or machines? Most would probably now vote paper every time. To quote AUDIT AZ's motto: "Election Integrity is not about the Right or Left; it's about right, wrong, greed and corruption."

Denis G Campbell

Denis G. Campbell is publisher and editor in chief of UK Progressive magazine, frequent BBC TV and radio contributor, panelist on International Radio China's "Today on Beyond Beijing" show, contributor to The Huffington Post, Daily Kos,  The Guardian, Independent, and other UK broadsheets and magazines. He has written extensively over the last three years about election machine integrity issues in Arizona, Ohio and California. You can follow him on Twitter @UKProgressive.

Last modified on Monday, 23 August 2010 16:10