Everyone who cares about American democracy should raise a toast -- or a hat, or a loud cheer -- to California's Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, a politician who has somehow resisted the pressure of special-interest lobbyists, campaign fundraisers, and the rest of whole dubious cabal surrounding modern politics and actually done the job of representing the people who elected her to office.
Literally minutes before a self-imposed midnight deadline last Friday, Bowen decided to decertify every last electronic voting system in California. That means, with a few exceptions to make provision for disabled voters and early voting, the country's most populous state will be reverting to paper ballot systems for the presidential primary next February and every other election thereafter.
In some ways, Bowen's decision was a no-brainer. Study after study over the past four years has shown that the systems developed by the likes of Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems & Software are riddled with software-writing flaws and security holes, not to mention a propensity to fail catastrophically in live elections. There are any number of ways that a computer-savvy outsider could hack into the system and compromise the integrity of the vote; the opportunities only multiply if someone already working for a country registrar's office decides to dabble in a little insider foul play. Bowen herself commissioned an exhaustive review of the state's four voting systems (the fourth being from the Texas company Hart InterCivic), which not only confirmed many of the flaws previously identified by the country's top computer scientists but added a few more -- most notably the fact that Diebold's and Hart's systems compromise ballot secrecy because it is remarkably easy to reconstruct who cast which ballot.
Still, it took an act of considerable political courage for Bowen to issue her ruling. In the run-up to the 2004 election cycle, her predecessor Kevin Shelley became the country's first secretary of state to insist on a paper trail to act as a back up to electronic votes, and subsequently decertified a whole class of Diebold electronic machinery in response to a litany of company lies and incompetence. Shelley, for his pains, was bombarded with accusations of improper conduct in office -- some of them since shown to have been exaggerated or fabricated -- and drummed out of office, his reputation suddenly in tatters.
Bowen, like Shelley, is facing a wall of hostility from certain country registrars as well as the voting machine manufacturers themselves. They'd no doubt love to discover that she, like Shelley, has an anger management problem, or that something was awry with the accounting from her own election campaigns. Bowen, though, has a reputation as the straightest of straight arrows. And she also has time on her side. While it might have been controversial to suggest, in 2003 or 2004, that the new generation of electronic voting machines were an invitation to voter fraud on an unprecedented scale, it is now much closer to received wisdom. Florida and New Mexico are hurriedly moving away from electronic voting. Many other states are conducting reviews. Individual counties, many of them burned to the tune of tens of millions of dollars on systems they no longer trust, are running scared from one end of the country to the other.
California tends to be a bellwether in these matters, so it's a fair bet that Bowen's ruling will greatly accelerate the nationwide trend away from electronic voting to something more transparent and verifiable. (Optically scanned paper ballots seem to be the most reliable, and cheapest, way to go.) In other words, she has notched an unambiguous victory for the cause of voter rights.
This is, of course, a mess the country should never have gotten itself into. But money and influence go a long way in this political system. It's to Bowen's endless credit that she has refused to be swayed and defended the public interest instead. That used to be what democratic politics was all about. These days, it's a radical act.