Electile dysfunction

Clark County may have new voting machines, but it faces more scrutiny from poll-watchers than ever

Photo: Ryan Olbrysh

Florida in 2000 gave us hanging chads and butterfly ballots. Ohio in 2004 set precedents for voter intimidation and massive disenfranchisement (350,000 missing or purged names). Frontrunners for this year’s dubious honor of further blackening democracy’s eye include Wisconsin, whose attorney general filed a lawsuit demanding election officials verify voters’ identities before the November elections; Macomb County, Michigan, whose Republican Party chairman wants to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting; and Montgomery County, Virginia, whose election director was chastened by the IRS for telling college students registering to vote for the first time that they could no longer be claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns and could lose medical benefits and scholarships.

Surprisingly little has been made of Nevada’s potential to become 2008’s new national symbol for electoral chicanery. Most people, it seems, have forgotten the valiant effort we gave it four years ago when former Voter Outreach of America employees accused the GOP-associated firm of shredding thousands of Democrats’ voter-registration forms, the former chair of the state Republican Party tried but failed to disqualify 17,000 Democrats who’d moved to different addresses, and blacks claimed Republican operatives intimidated them at polling sites. Hey, we tried.


From the archives
Building a better paper trail (12/18/03)
Vote like a rebel (5/13/04)
Beyond the Weekly
No need to make a case of a simple error (Las Vegas Sun 9/11/08)
Election lawsuit could frustrate Wisconsin voters at the polls on Nov. 4 (Star Tribune, 9/12/08)
Student voting raises concerns (The Roanoke Times)
E-vote (The New Yorker 1/22/07)

This year’s potential monkey wrench concerns the 4,500 Sequoia Voting Systems Edge Two machines that will be deployed throughout Clark County. This election marks the county’s first presidential contest using electronic, touch-screen machines. According to a list of voting-machine failures compiled by Common Cause, in November 2006, Sequoia machines were the subject of vote-switching allegations in Palm Beach, Florida, computer malfunctions in Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, and programming snafus that delayed results in Nye County, Nevada.

E-voting machines in general have been called unsafe and vulnerable to hacking. The state of Colorado decertified its machines in December, citing, among other concerns, password breaches and a failure to detect security violations. Earlier this month, the Computer Security Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, released a YouTube video demonstrating how to hack a touch-screen voting system.

Larry Lomax.

Larry Lomax.

With record turnout expected in Clark County—780,000 likely voters, up from the previous high of 684,313 in 2004—any significant problems could play a role in who wins Nevada and, possibly, the White House. When discussing the possibilities, Larry Lomax, the county’s registrar of voters, speaks with the calm assuredness of a knowing grandfather. He acknowledges that a completely computerized process causes anxiety for some. Yet he’s confident things will run smoothly.

“We only had 750 of these machines in the 2004 presidential elections. You have people that only vote in presidential elections, so this technology will be new to them, and they will want to know if the machines are safe. They are.”

Lomax says most e-voting problems are caused by human error. To cover its back, the county purchased paper-trail printers, one of a handful of states to do so. After every election, officials randomly select 2 percent of the machines and compare the electronic and paper results. Lomax says there haven’t been any miscounts. As such, he gives little credence to the hack attacks organized by techies with something to prove.

“If you give me time, money, some computer whiz kids and access to a machine, I’m sure I can find a way to manipulate the system, too,” he says. “There’s never been a proven case of fraud tied to the machines.”

Voting Machine Attack (Part 1) - from YouTube.com

Voting Machine Attack (Part 2) - from YouTube.com

Proven, of course, is the operative word.

Set up like ATMs, the machines themselves are relatively easy to use. You insert a special card into the reader, and up pop the candidates’ names with selection boxes next to them. If you skip a political race, the screen will repeatedly remind you to make a choice. Same thing if you try to select two candidates for the same position. It allows you to make changes, preview your ballot and compare a printout against your on-screen choices. “These machines work well,” Lomax says.

He has less control over the actions of miscreant poll-watchers. Per state law, any person may observe voting at a polling place. They must sign a form promising not to talk to voters, use a cell phone inside the polling place, advocate for a cause, candidate or party, challenge city or county personnel or interfere with voting. They are supposed to stay in a designated location. Not all abide by the rules.

During the 2004 elections, voters across the country pilloried poll-watchers for demanding their identification, challenging their residency and turning away repatriated felons. Former Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates claimed a Republican operative intimidated voters inside a polling site at H.P. Fitzgerald Elementary.

“The guy’s biggest sin was that he was a white guy at Fitzgerald,” Lomax says. “She was upset with that. He was a poll-watcher. Everybody has poll-watchers. The team leader called us and said that Gates was yelling and insisting on throwing him out. He wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

The tightening presidential race between Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain and Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and hotly contested local races could produce a historic turnout of poll-watchers, too. There were as many as 14 at some sites in 2004, Lomax says. Officials from both campaigns have called his office seeking assurances about maintaining vote integrity. Scuttlebutt is that another group will be dispatched in larger-than-ever numbers (more than 100), both to watch the poll-watchers and to look out for anything untoward. Who are these people? Lawyers.


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