In the 2000 presidential election we had Katherine Harris. In 2004
it was Kenneth Blackwell. And now a new horror show is about to play out in
the troubled landscape of America’s dysfunctional democracy – yet
another top state election official who also happens to be openly cheerleading
for one side in a race for high office.
The new poster-child for how not to run elections is Cathy Cox, the Secretary
of State of Georgia. Only she comes with an added twist. She won’t merely
be helping to run someone else’s campaign in next year’s mid-terms;
she will be running for office herself.
Cox, a Democrat, was the first Secretary of State to champion and purchase
an all-electronic touch screen voting system for her state. She persuaded Georgia
to spend an initial $54 million on a hitherto untried Diebold system in 2002,
and has tried ever since to parlay the e-voting revolution she helped launch
into a bid for the Georgia governorship in November 2006. “Advancing the
e-government revolution,” is the slogan on her website.
Contrary to the fine rhetoric, however, a raft of official documents obtained
exclusively by the Huffington Post – including the original
contract signed with Diebold and a flurry of six amendments that followed
between July 2002 and December 2004, as well as
official correspondence and legal papers – show that Cox’s management
of Georgia elections has been little short of a disaster. The documents were
obtained by way of multiple public records requests, most of them coordinated
by the Georgia voting rights activist Roxanne Jekot and her organization, Count
The documentary record shows that elections were run on software that was not
only untested but also uncertified, that key components broke down during live
elections, that county officials were left clueless on how to operate the new
machines because of a breakdown in the training schedule, and that the cost
of installing the electronic touch-screen system jumped dramatically beyond
the advertised $54 million, without proper legislative oversight or approval.
None of this has previously been made public.
Among the most shocking findings:
• Georgia ran its first all-touch screen election, in November 2002,
with software for which
no evidence of legal certification had been submitted. Certification documents
were still not forthcoming, in fact, as
late as March 2003. Because of a meltdown
in the schedule for training county election workers, Georgia ended up abdicating
control of the election to Diebold technicians, who ran it on the state’s
behalf – without the voters being told.
• While state officials were assuring the public everything had passed
off swimmingly, they were telling
Diebold they had found evidence
of screen freezes and other calibration problems potentially affecting the accuracy
of the vote count, the deployment of “obsolescent” memory cards,
CDs supposedly containing county election results that turned out to be blank,
memory failures in the tabulation process and a raft of other problems.
• Two months before last year’s presidential election, Georgia
and Diebold identified the need for a “security
adjustment” to be installed on every terminal. But the state did not
insist on having it certified and installed before the vote took place. Rather,
Diebold was given a deadline of May 2005 – six months after the election.
In other words, Georgia went ahead with the election in the full knowledge that
its security was compromised.
• At the the same time, Diebold and the state of Georgia entered into
a convoluted written
agreement which appears designed to circumvent a legal requirement for voting
equipment to meet standards approved by the Federal Election Commission in 2002.
Although the language is ambiguous, contract experts say the agreement seems
designed to grandfather in older standards drawn up in 1990 – the Stone
Age, in computer terms.
• Although Cox claimed
the 2004 election produced a record low number of missed or undervotes (just
0.39 per cent in the presidential race, compared with 3.5 per cent in 2000 when
the state used punch card machines), records obtained from more than 30 counties
through public records request suggest the missed votes were catalogued under
a different criterion – “blank voted” ballots. While the printouts
from the touch screen terminals show nothing
but 0s in the undervote column, the percentage of blank votes reaches as
high as 39 per cent in some lower-order races.
• When Cox first
announced the contract with Diebold in May 2002, she said the $54 million
price tag would include the equipment and software and also “training
and support to election offices in every Georgia county”. What she did
not say was that the bulk of those services were covered only
up to the end of the November 2002 election. What’s more, the first
contract amendments – which, unlike the contract itself, do not appear
to have been subject to legislative scrutiny – show that the state committed
to paying Diebold at
least $10 million and as much as $20 million over and above the original
$54 million, to cover an extension of the service warranty, various software
upgrades and costs associated with having those upgrades certified. To this
day, Georgia voters have not been informed of the substantial additional costs
Georgia’s electoral system has been a subject of deep concern to voting
rights activists for some time – as documented in my new book Steal
This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (Nation
Books). Last year, a conservative group called the Free Congress Foundation
gave the state an F-minus grade on its election management practices, the most
dismal rate in the country. The new documents add considerable depth to those
initial concerns and, in some cases, raise questions about the legality of the
actions taken by the Secretary of State’s office. Running an election
on uncertified software, for example, is, in and of itself, a violation of the
In the last week, Cox has made a
surprising and entirely unanticipated volte-face on the question of adding
a voter-verifiable paper audit trail to the touch-screen machines so they can,
if necessary, be subject to a meaningful manual recount. Having vehemently opposed
the introduction of such a paper trail, she has now come out in support –
ostensibly in the wake of the Carter-Baker
commission report on electoral reform. Political sources in Georgia, however,
suggest she is under mounting pressure over her record of electoral management
over the past four years and may have decided that supporting a paper trail
was the price she had to pay to keep her gubernatorial ambitions on track.
With the publication of these official documents, the question arises whether
she is fit to hold any public office. That, ultimately, will be up to Georgia
voters to decide.