Saturday, January 17, 2009
The first objection is that this doesn't have to be an either-or situation. It would seem to me that the system that promoted the greatest voter participation would be one that allowed both absentee voting by mail and traditional voting at the polling places.
Second, I frankly doubt that the polling system is the major culprit in this island's notoriously low voter turnout. I suspect that a far bigger factor is the state's machine politics, where there's really no alternative to the Democratic party and huge campaign donations from O'ahu give chosen candidates an almost insuperable advantage; under those circumstances, many people may simply ask, why bother? The county's non-partisan election system, in which many local elections are already determined in the primary, is probably another factor in low general election turnout.
The third argument is the chance that polling places offer for direct participation in the democratic system. I, for one, will miss the sense of community that I feel when going down to Cooper Center and casting my ballot with other Volcano residents. And the polling system gives volunteer poll workers and even more intimate sense of playing an important role in their community. Mail-in ballots, by contrast, seem cold and impersonal.
And finally, I'm not convinced that all the possible kinks have been worked out of the mail-in ballot system. Back in 2004, I got to serve as an election observer, and gained a new appreciation for the layer after layer of procedures that have evolved to protect the integrity of our ballots. (See "The Last Jelly Bean," below). The mail-in system, like electronic balloting, would ditch those procedures and start from scratch, and I'm not at all sure that I trust the Post Office that much.
Anyway, here's Ford's proposal. You decide.
A RESOLUTION REQUESTING THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF HAWAI‘I TO ENACT A BILL TO ESTABLISH A PILOT PROGRAM FOR VOTE BY MAIL FOR ALL FEDERAL, STATE, AND COUNTY PRIMARY, GENERAL, AND SPECIAL ELECTIONS IN THE COUNTY OF HAWAI‘I , AND TO MAKE AN APPROPRIATION FOR THIS PILOT PROGRAM.
WHEREAS, the State of Hawai‘i has historically one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, and additionally, in 2006, the County of Hawai‘i had 173, 057 residents and 131,203 residents who were 18-years-of-age or older (76% of the population), but only 42.6% of the registered voters voted; and
WHEREAS, in Hawai‘i County, the percentage of voters in the Primary Election consistently dropped from a high of 88.6% in 1959 to 41.8% in 2008, and the percentage of voters for the General Election consistently dropped from a high of 94.3% in 1959 to 67.7% in 2008 with the lowest year being 2006 at 53.2%. In 2008, Hawai‘i County had 99,337 registered voters, but only 67,258 actually voted (67.7%) in the General Election which was also a presidential election year; and
WHEREAS, absentee ballots (combination of mail-in and walk-in) in Hawai‘i County Primary Elections have increased from 1988 (9.8%) through 2008 (40.2%). Absentee ballots in Hawai‘i County General Elections have increased from 9.3% in 1988 to 43.0% in 2008; and
WHEREAS, Oregon has had Vote By Mail elections since 1998. The 2004 Oregon election was one of the most contentious and closely scrutinized elections in Oregon history, and Oregon had the third highest voter turnout in the nation at 86.48% of registered voters. Of the five states with the highest voter turnout in 2004, Oregon was the only state without same-day voter registration. In 2008, Oregon achieved 85.7% voter turnout; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail maximizes voter convenience because voters do not have to stand in lines at the polls, take time off from work, drive in bad weather to precincts, wait for their turn at a limited number of polling booths, or have an illness or personal emergency on Election Day that prevents them from voting; and
WHEREAS, fraud can be protected against by utilizing the Vote By Mail program used in Oregon, to which every signature is verified to ensure that that voter is who they claim to be; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail improves accuracy of voter rolls because mailed ballots are not forwarded by the United States Postal Service but are returned to the county office of elections where voter rolls are accurately kept without the risk of inappropriate purges; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail improves uniformity because there is centralized supervision of ballot processing in the county office of elections, instead of in dispersed polling places. This maintains uniformity and strict compliance with law; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail promotes voter confidence by providing a paper trail where the accuracy and fairness of election results are provable, and the ballots can be recounted, by hand if necessary, to prove to voters that each and every vote was properly counted; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail can cost one-third less than polling place elections for the County of Hawaii, due to the decrease in cost of training and employment of officials for 67 precincts; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail increases voter participation even in small local elections where increased turnouts were seen when voters are provided with an easy and convenient way to vote. With several weeks in which to conduct get-out-the-vote activities, every citizen will be reminded to mail their ballot in plenty of time; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail creates a significant gain in informed voting because voters can do their research and think about choices while sitting at home with their Voters' Pamphlet and any other information that they want to use to make reasoned decisions; and
WHEREAS, change often frightens people and the fear of extending the potential of voting to a larger voting population increases fear. While it is the business of government to empower more people to vote, Professor James D. Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Portland said, “Controlling who votes is fundamental in politics... every change made to election rules alters to some degree, the voting population...That’s why, throughout our country’s history, ‘blood has been shed’ over extending the vote---to women, to blacks, to 18-year-olds and to the poor.” The poorest people in Hawai‘i county may not have transportation to the precincts; now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE COUNCIL OF THE COUNTY OF HAWAI‘I that the Legislature of the State of Hawai‘i is requested to create a pilot program for all federal, state, and county primary, general, and special elections based on the State of Oregon Vote By Mail program as the exclusive method for casting ballots in the County of Hawai‘i beginning with the 2010 Primary election and all other elections in the year 2010, all elections in 2012, and continuing through all elections including the General Election in 2014. This provides three full election cycles in which to determine the advantages of Vote By Mail in the County of Hawai‘i; and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the County Clerk shall forward certified copies of this Resolution, together with the proposed bill marked as Exhibit “A”, Absentee Ballot Statistics marked as Exhibit “B”, and a copy of the current State of Oregon “Vote By Mail Procedures Manual” marked as Exhibit “C” to the Mayor of the County of Hawai`i, to the Chairperson of the Hawai‘i State Senate, and to the Chairperson of the State House of Representatives, and to the Chief Election Officer for the State of Hawai‘i.
Early October: I’m on the phone with Hawai’i County Clerk Al Konishi when he brings up an intriguing proposal. “Did Gretchen [then-Journal Editor Gretchen Kelly] mention to you that we need a member of the press to act as Poll Watcher?” he asks. “I think you’d be ideal....”
It turns out that the reason I would be ideal not because of my journalistic brilliance, but because of the Journal’s deadline schedule. On Election Night, the reporters from the island’s two dailies are likely to be busy putting together last-minute stories about who won and who lost--and whoever would be in the actual vote counting area would be under virtual quarantine, lest partial results be leaked prematurely. But as a Journal correspondent, I can be more leisurely about my deadlines. Al and I agree that if I serve as an observer, I can write about the whole experience, so long as I write after the election is over and the results are announced.
I later learn the story behind the invitation. Two activists, Bill Eger and Milo Clark, had discovered a state law that called for a member of the press to be on the Election Observer team. That spot on the team had previously been filled by a retired journalist who recently had passed away.
I call a staff member at the County Elections Commission, and get some details about my duties. At each precinct, there will be poll watchers assigned by each registered party (to the extent that the parties can find volunteers to fill those positions) to ensure no irregularities during voting. But I’ll be assigned to a team the
This year, the county is actually using two different voting machine systems. A company called Election Systems and Software (ES&S) manufactured the two machines that will handle the paper ballots: the M-100, into which voters feed the ballots after they leave the polling booths; and the M550, which tallies the ballots again, once they arrive at the
But controversy already swirls around the new system. The Journal has been getting e-mails and letters decrying the fact that the E-slates don’t leave a “paper trail” in the form of ballots, perhaps making the electronic results more vulnerable to hacking and election fraud. In March of this year, Mother Jones magazine reported that Walden “Wally” O’Dell, CEO of Diebold, which manufactures some of the new electronic voting machines, was a heavy financial backer of President Bush’s campaign and had written a letter pledging pledging to help “Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President." and (See the Viewpoint on p. for more on this controversy.) The Mother Jones article noted that ES&L also had strong ties to the Republican Party: former company chair Chuck Hagel won election to the Senate in an upset race counted mostly by ES&S machines.
The Hawai’i State Elections Office has chosen an all-electronic voting system manufactured not by Diebold, but by a rival manufacturer, Hart Intercivic.
The two activists’ prodding may be helping to fix some of those gaps--such as getting an official Election Observer from the Press.
Part of my job, I’m told by a county elections official, will be to help test the voting machines before they’re used. To do so, I will need to fill out a set of dummy test ballots, which I can pick up at the County Elections Office on October 4 On the evening of October 11, the observer team will test the ES&S M-100 machines and Hart electronic eSlates. On October 30, we’ll be testing the ES&S M550 machines.
On October 4, I drive into
A day or two later, I get a call from the County Elections office, telling me that the State Elections Office will be sending me the packet directly, via certified mail.
Monday, October 11: The packet of ballots still hasn’t arrived. I call the
But as oft happens with journalists, fate intervenes, in the form of two telephone calls as I’m heading out the door. When I finally arrive at the Elections Office, my hour lead has shrunk to less than ten minutes.
My packet is waiting for me. I’m sent upstairs to the
Sue Irvine, the leader of the observer team, introduces me around. A state elections official explains to me about the sample ballots. “What you want is to create an easily recognizable pattern,” he says. “For instance, I can mark the first candidate in the first race, then the second in the second, then the first in the third, then the second in the forth....”
I need to create two “decks” or sets of sample ballots. I have up to 50 blank ballots to use in the endeavor, but the official notes that if I choose to mark all 50, I’m going to be here all night. I decide to make two decks of ten, and to use a slightly more complicated pattern: the first candidate in the first race, the second in the second, the third in the third, the fourth in the fourth, then back to the first candidate in the fifth. But many races only have two candidates. I do the one-two-three-four pattern in the multiple-candidate races, and alternate between one and two on the two-party races.
Meanwhile, the veteran Poll Watchers are already at work, feeding their test decks into the M-100s. I start “voting” frantically. I spoil a couple of ballots, grab a couple more....
Finally, I’m done. I’m lead to the first set of M-100s that I’m supposed to check, and shown how operate it. First, the machine must run a “zero count” printout to prove that there are no votes already sitting in the memory. Then I feed my test ballots through. The commands are punched into the machine to “close poll” then print the results. A cash-register-like tape spits out of a slot.
The pattern on the tape looks nothing like I’d expected it to look, though there does seem to be a pattern.
Now I have to sit down with my test ballots, to make sure that each candidate got as many votes as my 10 fictitious voters gave him.
Good lord, I thought. They’ve entrusted the tally of democracy to an English major.
But the numbers check out. Now I go to the next machine, “vote” the same test deck, and compare the printout to my first printout. They match, except for the one vote that I changed. The same for the next two machines. Then I switch decks for the next four.
My second deck, I discover, is even further off my expectations. I’d done it in even more of a hurry, and left a couple of races blank, and somehow only done nine ballots. That’s all right, as it turns out: it’s just a different pattern.
Next I’m led to the eSlates. Unlike the notorious Diebold machines, this is not a touch-screen system--as I discover, when I touch the numbers on the screen and nothing happens. There’s a little dial that the voter must turn, to move a highlight bar up and down the screen. An election official, or maybe it’s a Hart employee--I’m a little vague on everybody’s affiliations--shows me how to command the machine get a zero count and open the poll. Then, reading the results off one of my test decks, I twirl the dial to highlight the same candidates and each constitutional choice, then press a button to enter it, duplicating the results on the test ballot. This way, there’s at least a paper ballot to compare to the machine’s results in this pre-test, even though there won’t be any such ballots when the real thing happens.
The eSlate is actually a pretty nifty piece of machinery. The screens are easy to read, and there’s an audio headset for the visually impaired. And the eSlate does have one big advantage: it’s easier to fix a mistake or change my mind. After I’ve electronically “marked” the last constitutional issue, a screen shows up with a summary of my votes. If I don’t like one of my choices, I can backtrack and change it. Then, when I’m satisfied, I hit a big button marked “VOTE,” and my ballot officially enters the machine’s memory bank.
After the machines have been tested, each is put in a closed box with a wire-and-plastic seal that can only be broken by cutting the wire. They’ll stay sealed until Election Day. Each seal is individually numbered, and the number is logged when it is used. When the boxes arrive at the polling place, the seal numbers will be checked again, to make sure that they haven’t been tampered with.
Our test ballots and printouts are also sealed up in a big rectangular steel box known a “can.” (The metal ballot boxes in which the votes will be transported, officially referred to as Voted Ballot Containers or VBCs, are also called “cans.”)
We’re done for the night.
Saturday, October 30: the last minute phone-callers have struck again. I arrive 5 minutes late, and find a briefing session already underway. I take a seat and start taking notes--partly for the future story, but partly because I’m still the new kid on the block, trying to figure out what is going on.
Milo Clark is commenting on the lack of poll-watchers at the walk-in absentee balloting stations.
“We cast a heavy light on the mail-in ballots,” he comments. “We don’t cast any light on the walk-ins.”
The discussion moves on to the issue of the Hart machines.
The discussion is generally constructive--people bringing up minor glitches and talking about how to solve them.
After the briefing session, we adjourn to a back room, where two M-550s reside: high-speed paper-ballot scanners that will be used to read the “AB-mails,” or mail-in absentee ballots. The seal is broken on the Poll Watcher’s “can,” and we all bring in our test decks in to be read. The machines whiz through each deck at the rate of 550 ballots per minute, and spit out more readout tapes for us to compare to our originals. Again, my results match.
Afterwards, the machine’s memory chips are to be pulled and presented to Sue Irvine, who will seal them in the Observers’ Can until Election Day.
Election Day. I arrive on time, at , but the big room is already a hive of activity. The M-100 and eSlate machines are gone, carted off to the polls. Most of the tables that had held the eSlates have been pulled together to form a single space, piled high with thousands of AB Mail envelopes.
The election teams gather for a short briefing.
“Everybody knows that their cell phones should be off, or in the car, or at home?” we’re asked.
For the first time, the true complexity of a modern election begins to become apparent. An election isn’t just a simple counting of votes. It’s a highly complex operation, with specialized teams, security measures, and built-in redundancies, almost all designed to ensure one thing: public confidence that the vote was as accurate and unbiased as possible.
Each Observer is assigned to watch one of the other teams. My assignment is the Poll Book Audit Team, whose duties don’t begin until fairly late in the process, so I have some time to check in on most of the other teams.
Activity shifts from one part of the room to other parts as the day passes. At the beginning of the day, most the action centers around the absentee ballots. A dozen or so women, mostly middle aged or better, has one of the more thankless tasks: opening that enormous pile of envelopes. But they seem amazingly dextrous at it, slicing hundreds of envelopes with nary a finger opened in the process, while engaging in cheery conversation, as if this were an old-fashioned quilting bee.
“Most of these ladies have been at it for years,” a veteran Watcher tells me.
In the M-550 room, the high-speed vote counter is not operating so fast this morning. The chief culprit seems to be not the machine itself, but the mail-in envelopes, which are slightly smaller than they should have been. Many ballots have been folded not in three, but in five or six to fit the envelope. As a result, the machine has a problem feeding some ballots, which then have to be extracted and fed through again; if that doesn’t work, they’re sent to the Duplication Team, which hand-fills-out exact duplicate ballots.
I’m briefly pressed into service for another duty: if a ballot unreadable because something has been over-voted, or a mark is too faint for the machine to read, it has to be hand-examined by a team of three observers, to determine if it is a “true overvote” or just a reading problem. Some of the problem ballots turn out to be erasures, with just enough ink left to fool the machine; in others, the voter tried to change his or her mind by ‘X’ing out a previous choice. If all three observers decide that the ballot is not a true over-vote, then it goes to the Duplication team.
Therein lies the only controversy in which I become involved today. We’re somewhat thrown by the fact that two ballots in a row have been both X’d out and initialed--with the same initials on each ballot. I find that coincidence a little puzzling. So does
I reluctantly agree that I’m a little spooked by the initials. But one of the other observers then says that we must count all other X’d out votes as over-votes as well, to which I don’t agree.
Meanwhile, the Duplication Team, whose work is sporadic, has started a jigsaw puzzle at their table. As the day grinds on, the absentee ballots get finished and the afternoon wait for the precinct ballots begins, members from other teams join in on the jigsaw construction. The puzzle, which shows an American Eagle, is polished off fairly quickly. But a second puzzle, depicting hundreds of jelly beans, proves to be a “buggah.”
Then the precinct “cans” start to come in, and activity erupts in whole new sections of the room. The Hart team sits at a bank of three Dell laptops loaded with proprietary software programs that will be used to download the data disks from the voting machines, tally them and send them to
I’m finally called to duty with the Poll Book Audit Team, whose job is count the names of voters that have been checked off in the poll books as they came to vote, and compare those numbers with the number of votes recorded in the two machine systems.
The team consists, I’m told, mostly of people with book-keeping and accounting experience. They count the names on each page, then enter the totals in old-fashioned calculators. If totals don’t match up by more than five or six names, they count again. I check on their checking by counting names after they’ve counted.
In only one precinct do I find an excessive number of incidents involving the eSlates--mostly voters starting to vote on the machines, but then giving up because of the wait. I wonder if it’s not because some poll worker has been over-enthusiastic about pushing people to try out the new machines.
Most of the accounts of problems include the note: “
As the evening wears on, the results start to come in. Ironically, at the
As approaches and operations wind down, more attention focuses on the infernal crossword puzzle.
Afterword. Milo Clark still isn’t satisfied. He thinks the eSlate system has a couple of major weaknesses.
“Can these machines be manipulated? Yes. There's two ways,” he believes. One is the early programming stage:“Whoever does the programming on the Hart MBB cartridges--there's where somebody needs to check and double checked and triple checked.” The other is the Hart system’s use of off-the-shelf Dell computers and Microsoft software--both of which, he maintains, are easily hacked--to transmit the results to
But even he admits that he saw no signs of deliberate tampering in
Al Konishi is more optimistic. “When you look at all that goes on here--how could anything this complex be manipulated?” he says.
And he has a point, to some extent. The Election System isn’t just a system; it’s an evolutionary process. Since elections were first invented, people have found ingenious ways to cheat. But the cheaters have to find their way past thousands of other people with an interest in keeping the elections honest: people like Clark, who point out the problems, and others who invent new ways to check on the system--poll book audits, manual audits, ballot machine checks--and thousands more who volunteer to make them work. Democracy continues to work, so long as there are those thousands of poll volunteers working the system, staying until the last jelly bean falls into place.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Or so the Jews thought, in 66 A.D. Over 9,000 took shelter there when the Roman legions arrived to crush the First Rebellion. But the refuge became a deathtrap; when the Romans besieged the place, they had only one exit to block. According to the ancient historian Josephus, the Romans sat outside the town for over seven months, starving the residents. When the legions finally breached the wall, they killed about 4,000 Jews. The other 5,000 jumped. It was a massacre ten times the size of the celebrated Jewish suicide stand at Masada.
Our little excavation team included Israelis and Druze, Americans and Germans, a young Jewish lady born in Yemen and another lady from New Zealand. Our director carried a six shot revolver because, he said, by Israeli law, when more than six people gathered, one of them had to be armed. When the Israelis bombed an Iraqi reactor that summer to slow down Saddam's then-all-too-real nuclear effort, we were cut off for three days as Israeli tanks maneuvered to confront Syrian tanks on the heights behind us. But, all told, the Gamla excavation was an ironic little island of peace in the troubled Holy Land: a place where people could ponder and discuss the violent past and the violent present without shooting each other.
The view from Gamla was magnificent. Most of the so-called Holy Land lay stretched out below us. But ours wasn't the only spot with such a view. Across the gulch to the south, we could see a stone farmhouse and an orchard, whose owners had fled or been forced out when the Israelis occupied the Golan in the Seven Days' War of 1967.
One day during one of our lunchtime discussions, I remarked that I could see how the farmers who had lived on that adjacent spur would hate to leave that spot with its incredible view.
"That view was why they had to leave," responded an Israeli co-worker. "A piece of artillery there could shell the entire Jordan Valley."
And there, in a nutshell, is one of the nearly insoluble problems of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The "Holy Land"--Palestine to the Palestinians, Israel to the Israelis--is tiny. The entire land covers only about ten thousand square miles--a little over twice the size of the Island of Hawai'i, with no 13,000-foot mountains in the middle to make it seem larger. When I took a bus from Tel Aviv on the coast to Jerusalem in the interior, it took about 45 minutes. A fortified hilltop with a few big guns, located anywhere along the country's central spine of hills, could easily cut Israel in half. Which is why, I don't doubt, Israel is so unwilling to give up the fortified settlements that stud those hilltops in the West Bank, even if they weren't the site of ancient Hebrew settlements in Biblical times.
But it's even worse for the Palestinians. There's probably no place in Gaza or the West Bank that Israeli guns can't easily shell. Gaza is especially vulnerable. Its total area is only 140 square miles--if it were rectangular, that would be only 10 miles wide by 14 long. And in fact, it's more stretched out and vulnerable than that. At its widest point, along the Egyptian border, it's only seven miles across; for much of its length, it's only three or four miles from the ocean to the interior. You could walk across Gaza in an hour or two, if no one detained you; you could drive a tank across in minutes.
Economically, the situation is even worse. Gaza's 140 square miles are estimated to hold about a million and a half people--one of the highest population densities on earth. There's simply no way that this tiny patch of ground, a little more than half the size of Singapore, could grow enough food to support all those people, or supply the natural resources needed by its factories. With the blockade in effect, its people must be feeling very much the way that the starving Jews of Gamla must have felt as Roman legions tightened their grip--or as the Jews of Europe felt when walls were built around their neighborhoods. It's a bitter irony that Israel has decided that its only solution to the Palestinian problem is to build ghettos.
Israel has claimed continuously that it has a right to protect itself. But it has deprived the Palestinians of that same right, as well as virtually every civil right recognized in the U.S. Constitution, including the right to keep property (as many as half of the people in Gaza are dispossessed refugees, whose families were driven from their homes in other parts of Israel and Palestine), freedom from religious discrimination (Israel is a state specifically created for Jews, even though it does have some Muslim citizens), freedom to elect their own representatives (when Hamas was elected. the Israeli response was a blockade), and, of course, the right to bear arms. But most importantly, Israel has denied Palestinians the very security that it claims for itself: not just security from being bombed or shot at, but economic security. Deprived of most of their land and cut off from natural resources, Palestinians have little to sell except their labor--and with borders closed and walls going up, they cannot even get jobs to feed their families.
I hate to say it, but if I were a Palestinian, I would probably hate Israel, too. Since I was born into a Christian milieu and embrace a life of personal nonviolence, I can't say that the Palestinians are justified in launching unguided rockets that land in civilian populations. But I can understand that reaction.
The simple fact is that neither Palestine nor Israel are sustainable states. Israel has always existed with the help of massive aid from the U.S. and private donations from world Jewry. The Palestinian state, as currently envisioned, is an economic basket case, with little to support it except olive groves and human labor. The only inland water resource of any size is the Jordan River watershed, on which both states must depend. Israel/Palestine is just too small and resource-poor to support two independent economies, much less two independent and fully sovereign states. It may not even be big enough to support one state. And the land's size and geography make it almost impossible for two states to be tactically secure from each other.
In short, the only hope that I can see that Israel and Palestine have of surviving is not as two independent states, but two interdependent ones, sharing resources and treating each other with enough respect that they don't have to worry about each other's weapons.
Given the mutual animosity that has built up over the past 50 years, I doubt if such a practical acknowledgment of interdependence is possible--especially if we pin our hopes of that acknowledgment on two populations in which significant numbers of people on both sides claim that God has given them the right to all of this land. Maybe the recognition of interdependence needs to start away from the battlegrounds, with the people who are controlling the purse strings to the aid on which each side is dependent. Maybe we could start by nudging the two sides into negotiations, not on the political control of Jerusalem, but on things like trade agreements and water rights.
But a sea change of attitude has to start somewhere, or that little country's (those little countries') animosities could very well pull us all into Armageddon eventually.