Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, June 08, 2006

  GAO report on Election 2004: Why give us pabulum?

If you're worried about the fairness of elections in the U.S., and fed up with the national failure to investigate the issue seriously, prepare yourself for another shock. Today the Government Accountability Office finally delivered its assessment of the 2004 election. This involved surveys of local and state election officials, as well as visits to dozens of counties around the country.

Though I haven't read all 519 pages yet, the report appears to be a colossal floperoo. A dud. An opportunity missed. It appears to ignore, circumvent, or tiptoe around all the most awkward issues. Instead of getting to the heart of why so many Americans are deeply troubled about the state of elections, it serves up page after page of pabulum. If you did not already know about these controversies, you would hardly be able to surmise their existence from this muted and elliptical report.

It's almost as if somebody at the GAO decided that it just wouldn't do to ask whether our elections are in crisis. And the GAO's recommendations? It has none. Chiz.

The game is given away by the report's title: Elections: The Nation's Evolving Election System as Reflected in the November 2004 General Election. "Evolving" is a very polite circumlocution for "Going to Hell in a Handbasket".

If you have no stomach for five-hundred-page reports, the Abstract will give you some sense of the fecklessness of the whole project.

As the elections technology environment evolves, voting system performance management, security, and testing will continue to be important to ensuring the integrity of the overall elections process. GAO found that states made changes--either as a result of HAVA or on their own--to address some of the challenges identified in the November 2000 election. GAO also found that some challenges continued--such as problems receiving voter registration applications from motor vehicle agencies, addressing voter error issues with absentee voting, recruiting and training a sufficient number of poll workers, and continuing to ensure accurate vote counting. At the same time, new challenges arose in the November 2004 election, such as fraudulent, incomplete, or inaccurate applications received through voter registration drives; larger than expected early voter turnout, resulting in long lines; and counting large numbers of absentee ballots and determining the eligibility of provisional voters in time to meet final vote certification deadlines.

That is about as controversial as the full report gets: it will continue to be important to test, secure, and manage the voting machines.

As I said before, chiz.

This is a view of election problems seen through the eyes of state and local officials, nothing more. The main problems that deserved to be highlighted by the GAO, evidently, involved quite a few annoying things that voters did in 2004, like register in large numbers and then show up at the polls when nobody was expecting them. I'm surprised there wasn't a subheading in this report on Coffee: Not enough of it when needed.

Other problems that you might have thought the GAO could usefully take a look at, such as the lack of faith voters have in the integrity of new voting technologies; fraud committed by partisans; the manipulation of election regulations; the withholding of voting machines from minority precincts...these kinds of things appear to be missing from the report.

And I think I've been looking in the right place for them, if they were there. At pages 28 to 30 of the full report, for example, under Principal Findings, there's the section Voting Methods and Technologies. Here, if anywhere, we'll learn about the lack of a paper trail, the curious misalignment of Diebold's machines, the bizarre vote tallies, the backdoors into the machines, and the myriad other problems documented by concerned citizens and Congressional report. Well, no. We get more pabulum.

From our local jurisdiction survey, we estimate that the vast majority of all jurisdictions were very satisfied or satisfied with their systems' performance during the 2004 general election, even though performance data may not have been collected to an extent that would provide firm support for these views.

I defy anybody to explain to me what that could possibly mean. An estimate of vast satisfaction based upon inadequate data. And the following is about the extent of the report's interest in the problems of securing the vote.

Having secure voting systems is essential to maintaining public confidence in the election process, and according to our local jurisdiction survey estimated results, accomplishing this was a shared responsibility among states, local jurisdictions, vendors, law enforcement officials, and others for most jurisdictions....In the area of testing, most states reported that they required national or state certification of their voting systems, but the systems covered by those requirements and the criteria used for certification also varied by state and by voting method.

Appropriately defined and implemented standards for system functions and testing processes are essential to ensuring the accuracy, integrity, and reliability of voting systems across all phases of the elections process. States and local jurisdictions face the challenge of regularly updating and consistently applying appropriate standards and other directives for security management and testing to address vulnerabilities and risks in their specific election environments.

I quote this at length only to demonstrate that what the GAO has given us is such thin soup I wouldn't feed it to a dog.

Surely there's some discussion of the Ohio debacle? To test that, I went to pages 206 to 208 of the report. Here is what the GAO officials learned from talking to elections officials in several Ohio counties.

Long voter wait times are a problem that election officials try to avoid. However, voters waiting in line at the polls was an issue identified in reports reviewing the November 2004 general election. These reports identified a variety of factors, including confusion about a voter's registration status, ballot or voting equipment shortages, or malfunctioning voting equipment that led to long voter wait times. We asked election officials during our site visits whether or not any polling places in their jurisdictions had long lines during the November 2004 general election and to describe factors they thought contributed to or helped to reduce long lines.

Election officials in 17 of the 28 jurisdictions we visited reported having long lines at one or more polling places in their jurisdiction at some point on Election Day. However, there was variation in the reported voter wait times, times of day, and numbers of polling places with lines. For instance, election officials described voter wait times that ranged from 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Some election officials reported that the longer lines occurred in the morning; others told us that they kept polling places open past the official closing time to accommodate voters who were in line when the polls closed. Election officials in over half these 17 jurisdictions attributed long lines to higher than expected voter turnout, both in general and at peak voting times....Election officials in 2 jurisdictions we visited in Ohio told us that higher than expected voter turnout in some precincts led to long lines. For example, election officials in 1 of these jurisdictions reported that at a polling place where two precincts were located there was higher than expected turnout because of a school board race. According to these officials, at this polling place there was a single line for voters from both precincts to check in at the registration table, and this line backed up. Election officials in another jurisdiction in Ohio told us that some precincts had long lines, and one precinct in particular had a waiting time of up to 1 hour. These officials said that one precinct closed 30 to 45 minutes after closing time for the voters that were in line at 7:30 p.m.

Waits of up to an hour? In Ohio? Say it isn't so. I am looking, and looking, and looking for any mention of Ken Blackwell in this report.

So, why can't we have a serious debate in this country about election integrity? If the GAO cannot even bring itself to admit that these issues exist, what hope is there that Congress will do anything serious to secure our democracy? Is this a mark of how sensitive the issue is? Or has the GAO gone squishy?


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