Interview with Bill O'Neil- Fair Elections Advocate

Molly Ivans recently ranted that Democrats were not doing anything. She asked “… why aren't Democrats making YOUR VOTE their top priority?” Well Molly we found a Democrat who is making our vote his priority and decided to interview him. Hamilton County’s leading political activist in election fairness and reform is unquestionably Bill O’Neil. Bill’s favorite drink is a Perfect* Manhattan with Jameson, not bourbon, on the rocks.
*1/2 sweet, 1/2 dry vermouth. (I this drink says he is a perfectionist and pays attention to detail.)Updated

Bill decided to start his own investigation into election fairness after the 2000 presidential election, where Bush was appointed. (You know, the election where Al Gore won.) Bill describes his early investigation as “lightly researching what went wrong.” The exit polls didn’t jive. He ramped up the investigation a little more leading up to the primary in 2003. And he dived in deeper after the 2004 election.

Bill is not the only one researching elections and electronic voting machines. He is one of many around the country. I asked how all the researchers communicate. “A lot of the communication is done through the Democratic Underground, there is an election reform forum on the site.”

Bill says there are countless websites for learning more about computer application to the election system, but two web sites for required reading. Both of the authors are technical and non-partisan.

The first is Chuck Herrin’s site. Who is Chuck Herrin you ask? Mr. Herrin has a broad and deep knowledge of Information Technology and Security Auditing, with experience as an IT Auditor, Security Officer and Security Consultant, well according to his website. Really, if you want to know more check out the site.

The second is a site by Doug Jones. Doug is affiliated with Accurate: A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections. He teaches at The University of Iowa in the Computer Science Department. Lots of useful info on this site as well.

There is so much to talk about when you talk about election fairness and computer application to the election system we could do a multipart series. Instead I decided to limit the scope to the election process facing us in the May and November elections.

Earlier this year, Hamilton County's Board of Elections voted to spend $10 million on a new optical-scanning system so the 573,000 registered Hamilton County voters can vote in compliance with the Help America Vote Act. (AKA: Hack America's Vote Act) The federal legislation was passed after the 2000 presidential elections, in which many paper ballots were questioned.

Bills points out that the HAVA was the brainchild of the Soon-to-be-Indicted Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio's connection to electoral fraud.

Brad of Brad BLog says of Ney “The heavy-handed tactics he has taken since [sponsoring the bill], in order to keep the flawed act from being changed in any way over the years, along with going to great lengths to keep the nation's eyes off of massive electile dysfunction in Ohio and elsewhere since 2004, may finally get the attention it all properly deserves.” (We can only hope.)

A Primer for Voting in Hamilton County
Let me give you a play by play of how voting will happen in the county’s 900 plus precincts (down from 2004’s 1016) on election day with the new machines. I spoke with Tim Burke Chairman of Hamilton County Board of Elections to verify the specifics.

When you show up at the polls, you show an id, sign in, then get a paper ballot. You go to a private booth, and mark your ballot with a pen. You then go to the one voting machine per precinct to run your ballot through. It reads your ballot and you have the chance to change your ballot if the machine finds a mistake on it. i.e. over-vote, under-vote. When you are satisfied with the paper ballot it gets deposited in a box to be taken to the BOE.

If you need to use the handicapped machine, there is one per polling place. These machines have a paper trail as well. The paper trail will be a paper scroll of each recording what each person voted, although the votes can’t be tied to a certain person, this ensures your right to a secret ballot.

Protecting our Votes
Will there be any kind of memory in the electronic machine in the precincts?
Yes, the first count on election night is from the machines.
What kind of protection do we have if the electricity goes out that our votes will not be lost?
There is a battery back up in the machines.
How long is the battery life?
It is sufficient to work for an entire election day.

Does the BOE have replacement machines, in case of machine failure on Election Day? (In past elections you have kept trucks around the county with voting equipment in the ready.)
Yes, just as before we will have replacement machines positioned around the county.

On May 2nd who will be counting the votes, BOE employees, or will the voting machine employees be counting?
The BOE employees will be counting. As in the past we will also have technical help from the voting machine representatives

The Price of a Fair Election
Bill O’Neil pointed out that the new machines will make this election more expensive. Punch card ballots cost 1 (one) cent each. The new ballots will cost 15 (fifteen) cents each. Multiply that by $400,00 voters. That’s a substantial increase.
Tim Burke agrees that the new system is more expensive than the punch-cards, but cheaper than any other system. The price of recounts will also go up. The cost of a recount will be $50 per precinct, 5 times more than in the past. Burke and O’Neil both feel this will discourage challenges. (If there is less than a half percent of margin of victory the county is required to pay for the recount.)

Bill also points out that maintenance will probably be more expensive than the old system. (This extra money will be going right into the Republican manufacturer’s pockets and into a Republican candidates election fund.) Updating software and the like.

The Changes
Tim Burke asserts that punch card ballots are cheep and accurate although the new system does have the advantage of letting you know when you over-voted, giving you the chance to correct it. With the punch-card system those errors were not revealed until ballots were counted at the BOE. This most notably happened in races where you voted for multiple candidates such as the City Council race. The over-voting problem caused many votes for City Council to be thrown out.

Evidentially we will still be using the rotation method on ballots. Rotation is where the each candidates name appears in a different position on ballots based upon precinct. This is supposed to put candidates on a even playing field. (I found out about this system during the special election last summer. Only two names on the ballot, and I voted for the wrong one. I assumed that the Republican candidate would be listed first, so I went right for the bottom candidate. Yeah, I voted for Jean Schmidt, before I voted against her.)

This election voters will be required to show a photo id before voting.

This election will also be the first time voters can vote absentee without declaring a reason why. Does the BOE expect more absentee votes? Tim responded that he isn’t sure the new absentee rules will translate into more absentee voters. Why? I don’t think people know how to do it. Now you have to supply more info.
What exactly do you have to do?
Provide your date of birth and one of the following: a) driver's license number; or b) last four digits of your social security number; or c) a copy of your current valid photo id or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows your name and address.

The Technical Gap
Typically the polls are manned with older people who have may have been doing things the same way for years. With the new voting system in place do you expect to lose some poll workers, because they are not technically savvy to advise voters on use of the machines?
Burke responded, “ That’s a good point there will probably be some turnover.”
The poll worker training classes are twice as long than before.

The board of elections has already test driven this equipment in small races with the usual poll workers, the older poll workers where able to adapt to the new system. Burke said he was on site at a polling place so he could get reaction from voters and poll workers during one of these recent elections. The presiding judge at the poll exclaimed, “Now I can go home and tell my granddaughter I know how to work the computer.”

Does the BOE have plans to educate voters about the use of the new machines? The BOE is putting forth a heavy effort to have equipment out to community groups and shopping centers, so people could familiarize themselves with the new machines. There is a quicktime movie on the BOE website showing how the machines operate.

Another question that O’Neil poses is will the machines and the counts be corrupted if we have say a lightening strike? As far as he knows there is no surge suppressors on the machines. (I saw a machine at the Democratic Forum event and it was plugged into a power strip that had a surge suppressor built in. Can you techies tell us if this is sufficient?)

Inquiring Minds
Say I moved to a new place, and have not had time to change my registration what should I do?

Go to the polling place for the new neighborhood. You can find your precinct by looking it up on the BOE website, then you will vote on a provisional ballot. That ballot won’t be counted for ten days. This allows the BOE to make sure you are a registered voter and didn’t vote in your old precinct.

Some polling places have several precincts on site. If I end up at the wrong precinct, and don’t want to wait in line again can I still cast my vote?
If you go to the wrong table you can get a provisional ballot. You can vote, but if you are in the wrong precinct your vote won’t count. This directive brought to you by our wonderful Secretary of State. This directive was challenged in court and unfortunately was upheld. (This is why we need to elect democratic judges. Check and balances.)

What happens to write in ballots?
Write in ballots with write in candidates on them are set aside and the written in votes are hand counted. However only those write in votes for legally registered write in candidates are counted. (The rest of the Ballot is counted.)

More from Bill
-So Bill what would be your preferred method of voting? “A pencil and paper.” A hand counted paper ballot. (aka known as HCPB.) If that’s not an option my next choice would be Open-source code op-scans.

-Why open-code? Because then people can look at the code, the tabulator is using, to verify its impartiality.

-If we adopted paper ballots, how long do you think it would take to count our half a million paper ballots? In Canada volunteers are able to count votes overnight. Albeit their elections don’t have as many races, so there is less to count.

-The new election law does not permit federal recounts in a state. If someone wants to challenge the presidential election, they will have to file in a federal court. This will discourage people from asking for recounts. O’Neil also points out since we don’t know what the code, says, it could be written keep the margins of victory greater than 1 percent so as not to trigger an automatic recount. (Many suspect a similar thing happened in Clermont County during the special election where Hackett was slaying Schmidt in the results, then boom, their machines break down, long enough to know how much of a margin they had to give Schmidt to not trigger a recount.)

-Don’t we have democrats that serve on all BOE’s across Ohio, to keep these kinds of “problems” form happening? Yes, but Blackwell has approval of all BOE officials. They all serve at his pleasure.
Tim Burke responds:While it is true that the Secretary of State formally appoints all Board of Election members, in each county two must be democrats and two must be republicans. It is the Executive Committee of each political party which recommends the name to the Secretary. It is very, very rare that the Secretary does not go along with the party recommendation. The last time I can think of that happening was several years ago when he refused to appoint the chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. My recollection is that a court fight ensued and the Secretary subsequently made the appointment. The Secretary does have the authority to remove Board members. That authority is also rarely exercised, but is used in the case of misconduct or misfeasance by Board members. Board employees are also equally divided between the two parties and the hiring is done by the local Board of Elections.

-Bill asserts the software proprietary. Therefore it is not transparent and independently verifiable software. It’s secret and one line of code can change everything.
When Burke was asked how can we be sure the machine counts are accurate he responded that the BOE always runs a test on equipment prior to an election to make sure it’s reading votes accurately. It’s always an open process. We ran one before the special election earlier this year on the new equipment and it came out fine.

-Polling: Why were the exit polls in the last election so off from the election results? Where they? Kerry was leading up until 1:30 AM, there were 13,200 responses in the final exit poll. Overnight they added 600 more responses that were added to the polls to agree with the reported results. O’Neil asks why? Something like 99 percent of the added votes where Bush votes. It smells really bad.

-Why would the pollsters change the results of their poll to agree with the results of the count? To give credence to polls, so people wouldn’t question the results of the polls.

-Bill also found a comparison of Las Vegas Slots and Electronic Voting Machines. You can find it in the March 16th issue of the Washington Post. It asserts that it's easier to rig an electronic voting machine than a Las Vegas slot machine. Professor Steve Freeman assembled the comparisons to suggest Americans protect their vices more than they guard their rights.

-Whenever there is a computer glitch in election results, it’s always in their favor and outside the realm of statistical probability.

I want to leave you with the thought that right-wingers might label those who question election fairness as conspiracy theorists, but if Americans don’t investigate the inconsistencies of the prior elections we may find our self in the same boat after the upcoming election. We might be saying we should have listened to Bill and the other fine folks questioning the elections.

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