America's Next Election Nightmare

09/27/2005 01:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the 2000 presidential election we had Katherine Harris. In 2004 it was Kenneth Blackwell. And now a new horror show is about to play out in the troubled landscape of America’s dysfunctional democracy – yet another top state election official who also happens to be openly cheerleading for one side in a race for high office.

The new poster-child for how not to run elections is Cathy Cox, the Secretary of State of Georgia. Only she comes with an added twist. She won’t merely be helping to run someone else’s campaign in next year’s mid-terms; she will be running for office herself.

Cox, a Democrat, was the first Secretary of State to champion and purchase an all-electronic touch screen voting system for her state. She persuaded Georgia to spend an initial $54 million on a hitherto untried Diebold system in 2002, and has tried ever since to parlay the e-voting revolution she helped launch into a bid for the Georgia governorship in November 2006. “Advancing the e-government revolution,” is the slogan on her website.

Contrary to the fine rhetoric, however, a raft of official documents obtained exclusively by the Huffington Post – including the original contract signed with Diebold and a flurry of six amendments that followed between July 2002 and December 2004, as well as official correspondence and legal papers – show that Cox’s management of Georgia elections has been little short of a disaster. The documents were obtained by way of multiple public records requests, most of them coordinated by the Georgia voting rights activist Roxanne Jekot and her organization, Count The Vote.

The documentary record shows that elections were run on software that was not only untested but also uncertified, that key components broke down during live elections, that county officials were left clueless on how to operate the new machines because of a breakdown in the training schedule, and that the cost of installing the electronic touch-screen system jumped dramatically beyond the advertised $54 million, without proper legislative oversight or approval. None of this has previously been made public.

Among the most shocking findings:

• Georgia ran its first all-touch screen election, in November 2002, with software for which no evidence of legal certification had been submitted. Certification documents were still not forthcoming, in fact, as late as March 2003. Because of a meltdown in the schedule for training county election workers, Georgia ended up abdicating control of the election to Diebold technicians, who ran it on the state’s behalf – without the voters being told.

• While state officials were assuring the public everything had passed off swimmingly, they were telling Diebold they had found evidence of screen freezes and other calibration problems potentially affecting the accuracy of the vote count, the deployment of “obsolescent” memory cards, CDs supposedly containing county election results that turned out to be blank, memory failures in the tabulation process and a raft of other problems.

• Two months before last year’s presidential election, Georgia and Diebold identified the need for a “security adjustment” to be installed on every terminal. But the state did not insist on having it certified and installed before the vote took place. Rather, Diebold was given a deadline of May 2005 – six months after the election. In other words, Georgia went ahead with the election in the full knowledge that its security was compromised.

• At the the same time, Diebold and the state of Georgia entered into a convoluted written agreement which appears designed to circumvent a legal requirement for voting equipment to meet standards approved by the Federal Election Commission in 2002. Although the language is ambiguous, contract experts say the agreement seems designed to grandfather in older standards drawn up in 1990 – the Stone Age, in computer terms.

• Although Cox claimed the 2004 election produced a record low number of missed or undervotes (just 0.39 per cent in the presidential race, compared with 3.5 per cent in 2000 when the state used punch card machines), records obtained from more than 30 counties through public records request suggest the missed votes were catalogued under a different criterion – “blank voted” ballots. While the printouts from the touch screen terminals show nothing but 0s in the undervote column, the percentage of blank votes reaches as high as 39 per cent in some lower-order races.

• When Cox first announced the contract with Diebold in May 2002, she said the $54 million price tag would include the equipment and software and also “training and support to election offices in every Georgia county”. What she did not say was that the bulk of those services were covered only up to the end of the November 2002 election. What’s more, the first contract amendments – which, unlike the contract itself, do not appear to have been subject to legislative scrutiny – show that the state committed to paying Diebold at least $10 million and as much as $20 million over and above the original $54 million, to cover an extension of the service warranty, various software upgrades and costs associated with having those upgrades certified. To this day, Georgia voters have not been informed of the substantial additional costs involved.

Georgia’s electoral system has been a subject of deep concern to voting rights activists for some time – as documented in my new book Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (Nation Books). Last year, a conservative group called the Free Congress Foundation gave the state an F-minus grade on its election management practices, the most dismal rate in the country. The new documents add considerable depth to those initial concerns and, in some cases, raise questions about the legality of the actions taken by the Secretary of State’s office. Running an election on uncertified software, for example, is, in and of itself, a violation of the law.

In the last week, Cox has made a surprising and entirely unanticipated volte-face on the question of adding a voter-verifiable paper audit trail to the touch-screen machines so they can, if necessary, be subject to a meaningful manual recount. Having vehemently opposed the introduction of such a paper trail, she has now come out in support – ostensibly in the wake of the Carter-Baker commission report on electoral reform. Political sources in Georgia, however, suggest she is under mounting pressure over her record of electoral management over the past four years and may have decided that supporting a paper trail was the price she had to pay to keep her gubernatorial ambitions on track.

With the publication of these official documents, the question arises whether she is fit to hold any public office. That, ultimately, will be up to Georgia voters to decide.