Election 2004: Is America Ready? – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Good morning Chairperson Berry and Commissioners.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify today on issues of election reform and voting technology that our nation faces as we approach the 2004 election. My name is Wade Henderson, and I am the Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). LCCR is the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse civil and human rights coalition. It consists of more than 180 national organizations, representing persons of color, women, children, labor unions, individuals with disabilities, older Americans, major religious groups, gays and lesbians, and civil liberties and human rights groups. Together, over 50 million Americans belong to the organizations that comprise the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

My purpose in speaking to you today is twofold. First, I would like to discuss the ongoing controversy over electronic voting technology. LCCR shares the concerns of the many individuals who have raised questions about the security of newer forms of voting equipment, and agrees that further improvements are necessary. To that end, I would like to share with this Commission a set of common principles that I believe are vital, from the civil rights community’s perspective, to follow as our nation moves forward in addressing the concerns that have arisen. And second, I want to attempt to add some badly-needed perspective to the debate over voting technology, by highlighting a number of other, already very real threats that we face going into this November and future elections. While LCCR is certainly concerned about vulnerabilities in computerized voting, it is all too painfully clear, to the civil rights community, that there are a wide range of other dangers that we simply cannot afford to ignore which, as in previous elections, threaten to rob Americans of their right to vote this November.

As an organization long concerned with protecting the fundamental right of every American to vote and to have that vote counted, LCCR watched with deep concern the chaos that ensued during the 2000 presidential election. After this Commission conducted extensive investigations into what went wrong in Florida and elsewhere, and issued comprehensive recommendations for improvement, LCCR played a key role in the efforts to move nationwide reform of our electoral systems forward. To this end, LCCR strongly supported many of the reforms that were ultimately included in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a bill which, while containing a number of flaws, will make it far easier for Americans to vote if it is adequately funded and properly implemented. Once it has been given a chance to work, HAVA will go a long way to address problems with voter registration, polling place operations, insufficient voter education, the lack of accessibility, and outdated and inaccurate voting equipment.

Since the enactment of HAVA, LCCR has been playing a leading role alongside the states in the push to ensure full funding, pointing out to Congress and the Administration, for example, that as our nation spends billions to establish democracies abroad, we simply cannot not afford to let doubts about the fairness of our elections continue to linger here at home. These efforts to secure more funding, to date, have resulted in appropriations of $3 billion. LCCR also pushed for confirmation of the members of the newly-formed Election Assistance Commission, and is working with them to help them fulfill their important duties. Finally, LCCR played a key role in moving the HAVA-mandated state planning processes forward in a fair manner, by helping to organize and educate state-level civil rights coalition efforts.

Of course, one of the key components of the Help America Vote Act is its call to replace older voting systems with newer types of technology. Newer systems, particularly “direct recording electronic” (DRE) or “touch screen” machines, have many advantages over older systems, and we believe that these machines are going to be very helpful in ensuring that more votes are accurately counted. As with all advances in voting technology, however, instilling voter confidence in these new machines has proven difficult, even though voters who have used the systems report a high degree of satisfaction.

This task of building voter confidence has been made especially challenging due to a number of studies that raise serious questions about whether current technology is adequately secure. Most notably, an independent study of software used by leading manufacturer Diebold, undertaken by computer security experts at Johns Hopkins University and Rice University, found numerous flaws and vulnerabilities that could potentially be exploited to rig the outcome of an election. Similar concerns have been raised by a number of other experts in computer science. These concerns have been badly compounded by a number of highly-publicized and alarming missteps by Diebold, the CEO of which, for example, raised doubts about his company’s impartiality as a manufacturer of voting equipment by stating that he was “dedicated” to delivering votes to President Bush. Diebold raised even more concerns among the public by taking aggressive, heavy-handed legal action against college students who had discovered and circulated internal Diebold emails, in which employees themselves raised security concerns about their products. Finally, as with any new voting equipment, there have been a number of reports of administrative and technical glitches in the early use of DRE machines.

Given these challenges, LCCR believes that it is appropriate to take additional measures to improve security and assure voters that their ballots are being cast and counted properly. These measures, however, must be consistent with important civil rights principles, and, equally important, they must not divert our attention away from a number of other critical issues that have had – and will continue to have – a drastic impact on the right to vote.

The Value of Electronic Voting

Before I discuss what steps ought to be taken to address concerns over electronic voting, I would like to start out by highlighting exactly what is at stake in this ongoing debate. Remember that in 2000, approximately 1.5 million voters left the polling place believing that their votes would be counted, but were not, because of obsolete and inaccurate systems. And in California’s recent gubernatorial recall election, punch card systems failed to record a valid vote, on the very first question of whether to recall the governor, on 6.3 percent of all ballots cast. For optical scan systems, this rate was 2.7 percent. Yet on DREs, the rate was only 1.5 percent. These differences in the rates of error are dramatic, and there is simply no logical way to explain them away on any ground other than the types of voting equipment used. Sadly, the great majority of voters will cast their ballots in the 2004 election on the same kinds of systems that have produced higher rates of error in the past.

LCCR strongly believes that it is crucial to modernize voting systems so that errors can be minimized and so that every vote can be counted. Of the voting systems available today, DREs clearly have the lowest rates of error. In addition, DREs are the only voting systems that are fully accessible, allowing all voters, including those with disabilities, to cast secret and independent ballots. DREs can also handle multiple languages, making it easier for election officials to accommodate individuals with limited English proficiency. Finally, millions of Americans who face literacy challenges are able to take advantage of the audio features of DREs to cast independent votes without embarrassment or invasion of their privacy. This all means, of course, that more votes ultimately get counted.

Guiding Principles for Reforming the Nation’s V