BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Florida Revisited: US midterm elections 2002
HITS: 2002 | 29-11-2002, 09:49 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

The election seemed at best sloppy, so much so that even elections BHHRG has monitored in “pariah” states of the ex-Communist bloc compared favorably in terms of cleanliness and order.  Furthermore, turnout by BHHRG’s observation was lower than reported.  Even if the large figures for early voting in some south Florida regions were correct (approx. 25% for Miami-Dade County, 20% for Broward County), the stream of voters going to the polls on polling day itself never appeared to exceed a trickle.  As already noted, at one polling station, BHHRG waited almost twenty minutes for a voter to even show up.  A report from The Miami Herald on Nov. 6th claims that Broward County’s initially reported turnout figure had to be “corrected” from 35% to 45% after it was discovered that the new voting machines had made an error – 104,000 ‘missing’ votes suddenly appeared.  But from what BHHRG could see, the 35% figure was closer to reality.

Skewed Results?

Traditionally the Republican Party in the United States has been the better funded of the two major parties.  In catering to their “business” constituencies, county governments and state legislatures all over the country have evidently found an incentive to purchase new, very pricey high-tech voting systems at taxpayers’ expense.  According to the company’s website, ES&S was responsible for counting roughly half the ballots cast in the entire United States on November 5th.  The neighboring state of Georgia actually had a uniform, statewide touch-screen voting system for the election, the only state to institute such a system in every precinct.  The Texas-based Diebold company, which manufactures ATM banking machines, provided 22,000 touch-screen voting machines to Georgia at a cost to the state of $54 million.  These machines varied only slightly from the ES&S machines used in Florida.  Another type of touch-screen machine was in use in Houston, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.  All in all, according to CNN, nearly $4 billion-worth of new technology was put in place for the 2002 election.  Republicans scored big wins in all the above areas where the new and highly expensive machines were operating. 

The gubernatorial race in Florida was billed as very close, yet incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush – the first Republican governor in history to be re-elected in Florida – won overwhelmingly and took Miami-Dade County, by far the most populous and ethnically diverse district in the state.  As with any large urban centre, Miami could have been expected to vote for the left.  BHHRG visited several areas  where social services were at best in disarray, at worst collapse.  Homelessness and unemployment are clearly problems, but there are many neighborhoods where endemic alcohol and drug abuse are readily apparent as well.  Under the Dolphin Expressway (Interstate 395) in downtown Miami, BHHRG saw groups of people wandering around in the middle of the day and late at night, clearly drugged-out and perhaps under the influence of crack cocaine.  Maybe the picture in the rest of Florida is much rosier, but one would have thought that in Miami, at least, the relentless “free market” privatization policies of Gov. Bush would have worn out their welcome.

Elsewhere, the incumbent Republican governor of Texas won with the help of his state’s largest metropolitan area, Houston, and in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, of which Charlottesville is the most populous area, a Republican won handily in a race viewed as close.  Perhaps no upset was quite as stunning as in Georgia,  where not only did the Republican gubernatorial candidate achieve a surprise come-from-behind victory, but Democratic Sen. Max Cleland – whose seat had been considered fairly safe – was also beaten handily by a GOP newcomer, Saxby  Chambliss. On 6th November the BBC reported that during the president’s recent visit to the state “Bush joined in the accusations against Democrats, such as Mr. Cleland, accusing them of being more interested in workers’ rights than the national security”. As journalist Eric Margolis observed: “One poignant photo said it all: Georgia's defeated Democratic senator, Max Cleland, sitting in a wheelchair, missing both legs and an arm lost in combat in Vietnam. This highly decorated hero was defeated by a Vietnam war draft-dodger who had the audacity to accuse Cleland of being "unpatriotic" after the senator courageously voted against giving Bush unlimited war-related powers. I do not recall a more shameful moment in American politics". ( “After Iraq, Bush will attack the real target”, www.canoe.ca/Columnists/Margolis 10/11/02) Anyway, surely the jury is still out on  Mr. Bush’s success as the guarantor of national security while the organizers of 9/11 are still at large and snipers attack innocent citizens in the Washington DC area. . 

The Efficiency Myth

Clearly, it is impossible to prove that the new technology delivered these sort of results resulting in the Republican control of Congress as well as a majority of state governorships, but it may not be outrageous to suggest that the “cyber-ization” of voting in America may have played a role in skewing the result. Experience has already called into question the reliability of such new devices, but little has been said about their advantages in terms of efficiency.  Here is a report from one Florida newspaper:

Union County... has had trouble-free elections dating back at least to the early 1920s as the only county in Florida that continued to hand count its ballots. But that changed this year... The old way, stacking and restacking the color-coded ballots into winners and counting them, could be completed by a dozen or two poll workers in time to send the paperwork to Tallahassee and still be home for the late news on Election Day.

But counting the county’s 2,642 ballots using the new optical-scan machinery this year took two days, after a programming error rendered the automatic count useless. So it was back to the tried-and-true hand count for Union County, which is about 130 miles east of Tallahassee.

The equipment vendor, Election Systems and Software Inc., accepted responsibility for the problems, which were caused when a printing error gave both Republican and Democratic ballots the same code. The machines read them both as Republican.

Todd Urosevich, vice-president of election product sales, said the company will pick up the expenses for the hand count and apologized to the county. (The Bradenton Herald, Sept. 17, 2002)

The story from Union County highlights the obvious advantages of “low-tech” paper ballots not only from the standpoint of reliability but efficiency as well.  A host of other articles and reports demonstrates the extent to which American public complacency about the new technology’s implications for democracy may be misplaced.

Lax (or Absent) Observers

The Center for Democracy’s pre-election report makes various sober recommendations for ensuring a fair and orderly poll on election day, but it is remarkable the entire 17-page report contains no discussion of the potential for manipulation and fraud inherent in the new “touch-screen” voting technology itself.  The report focuses on human organizational aspects of the poll at the expense of criticism of the implications for democracy of the (very expensive) high-tech machinery.

This attitude appears very much the mainstream among media and other commentators, who have largely ignored the issue of technological glitches even as they have accepted (if not hailed) the election results as, among other things, a huge “yes” vote in a “referendum” on President George W. Bush’s plans for war on Iraq.  In fact, much evidence exists that it was nothing of the sort, since some polls in America indicate that the vast majority of Americans do not think the issue of going to war with Iraq is of any consequence in their day-to-day lives.  Perhaps the 2002 election was more a referendum on whether or not widespread concern exists about the implications of faulty high-tech voting machines and sloppy electoral procedures for the future of democracy.  The passivity of the majority of voters who stayed home for the election, viewed in conjunction with voters’ responses to BHHRG’s questions in Miami during the election, make it look as if the result of this “referendum” was a resounding “no.”  In any case, it is supposed to be a function of outside monitors to point out problems that ordinary voters might not notice.

On the night of November 5th, Miami-Dade County Manager, Steve Shiver gave a press conference in which he hailed the election as a success, noting the presence of “international observers.”  But in response to BHHRG’s questions about where these observers could be found and whether or not a press conference was planned, Mr. Shiver responded that he had “no idea.”  Later, BHHRG ran into Alexander Veshnyakov, Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation and a member of the OSCE delegation who said that the OSCE would release a “limited” statement that reflected the “limited” nature of the observation mission.  As this report is written,  the OSCE/ODIHR’s web site contains no information,  not even a  preliminary report on the conduct of the poll. This is unprecedented in this Group’s monitoring of the OSCE/ODIHR’s record of election observing in the post-Communist era.

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