03/19/2010 05:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Surprise: Diebold's Demise Actually Bad For Elections Administration

A quiet 2007 re-branding to Premier Election Solutions helped turn down the heat on Diebold, the villain of a thousand conspiracy theories. (The new moniker is bland and vacant, but at least the firm still deigns to make its name pronounceable, unlike Blackwater, their fiendish Bush-era contractor cousin, which is now "Xe.") The voting equipment outfit brought this notoriety upon itself: For instance, its CEO infamously wrote a fundraising letter for George W. Bush in 2003, asserting that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," even as his company vied for a multi-million dollar contract from Ohio's Republican-run state government.

That Premier/Diebold might be on the verge of disappearing from the American political landscape could be mistaken for reason to celebrate. It was recently purchased by its major competitor, Election Systems and Software; if the acquisition is approved by the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, ES&S will manage elections in jurisdictions including 70% of the nation's voters. A small vendor, Hart Intercivic, is suing to block the merger; various election reform advocates are also working to stymie it.

There's a wider understanding than ever of the part private contractors play in the operations of our voting equipment and administration of elections. The popular reaction has been resounding: If the roles of these contractors were put to a vote, they would surely find themselves out of work. Distrust of elections is steadily on the rise, with some polls showing that a strong majority of respondents lack basic confidence that their votes will be recorded as intended.

Potential for malfeasance is not the only cause for concern, as these companies certainly influence our elections in other adverse ways. Voters should chase the vendors out of our polling places, and seize control of elections, once-and-for-all.

In "Privatizing Democracy: Promoting Election Integrity Through Procurement Contracts," Jennifer Nou notes that the Help America Vote Act, with its new mandates and billions of dollars for voting machinery, drove many jurisdictions to upgrade their equipment simultaneously, giving contractors inflated bargaining power and stunting the industry's motivation to make ongoing improvements to its technology.

Limited competition makes it easier for vendors to squeeze state governments for more money: They can stop servicing models artificially early, compelling states to buy new ones. They have reason to meet just the bare-bones requirements of contracts and limit the plasticity of their hardware so that they can compel upgrades on states that want to reform their voting systems.

Vendors keep tight control over their equipment and software, meaning states need to pay for service and programming help when there are problems, and decreasing transparency. When North Carolina's State Board of Elections in 2005 requested access to Diebold's software, following a state law requiring the Board to do so, the company simply refused.

When there is a clear problem with an election's administration, outsourcing allows for an extra layer of obfuscation and finger-pointing: Contractors quickly go on the defensive -- instinctively denying culpability, invoking property rights and striving to prevent scrutiny of software and records. For instance, when about 1,500 phantom over-votes were recorded in Washington, D.C.'s elections last September, the city tried to access the records and source code of the vendor, Sequoia Voting Systems. Sequoia refused, for nine months, finally succumbing in June under threat of a lawsuit.

Like any other corporations, elections vendors will do all they can to maintain their stature and revenue streams. They have discovered the benefits of the "revolving door," and building ties with politicians -- the famous Diebold quote is but one example:

-As he won an upset bid for Senate in a state that overwhelmingly used ES&S equipment, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel failed to reveal that he ran ES&S in mandatory disclosures.

-California Secretary of State Bill Jones began lobbying for Sequoia in 2002 -- the same year he ran for Governor. According to Nou, elections officials in at least four other states have also recently gone to work as lobbyists for the voting machine industry.

Such relationships have heightened the public's concerns and make clear that the contractors are not disinterested in the outcomes of the elections they facilitate.

We should hope that ES&S's acquisition of Premier is prevented, but that it looms so closely underscores that it is time to create an alternative to privatized election management. States should join the nascent movement movement towards systems that are owned and operated by the public. Oklahoma already has: In the 1990s it took ownership of its voting machines and source code. The state updates its own software, and recently developed a statewide optical scanner system, without fussing with contractors. Other states should learn from its experience - and from their own -- and follow suit.