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John Wellington Ennis

John Wellington Ennis

Posted: November 3, 2008 11:17 AM

The Technical Term: Human Error


A video was featured here on the HuffPo front page this week, produced by my group, Video the Vote. It showed a county clerk in West Virginia demonstrating the reliability of his county's ES&S machines when they are properly calibrated, versus out of calibration in response to complaints from early voters that they saw their vote flip from Democrat to Republican.

This helpful official gladly took our camera through the process of what voting machine calibration looks like. (Think of a Palm Pilot or an iPhone, you tap the screen in certain places so it gets its bearings.) After showing how alarmingly off the votes will register without proper calibration, the county clerk rebooted the ES&S voting machine, re-calibrated it, and showed the difference in the reliability of the touch screen.

In voting for Ralph Nader, then selecting the straight Republican ticket afterward, he noticed Ralph Nader was still selected as his choice for president. He immediately said the machine was still out of calibration, moments after assuring us that it was calibrated properly. Note, the Nader vote should have stayed as it did. This county clerk was mistaken.

Out of our recent series of reports on voter rights (Video the Vote) in different states, the traffic for this video suddenly skyrocketed. The Attorney General's office and the Secretary of State of West Virginia called us up, threatening legal action for misrepresenting their machines. There were edits in that video, and it didn't show the full process. The machine was right; the county clerk had been wrong.

We got calls from the Associated Press, Computerworld, Wired, all wanting to know the context of the vote flipping. Was Video the Vote sensationalizing this clip? While people had believed that these machines might be deliberately switching their votes, this just turned out to be a video of simple human error.

Exactly. Human error. What these tech experts and election officials are too close to see is that human fallibility is just one of the reasons that electronic voting machines are a disastrous idea. Besides the widely documented security flaws, besides the tendency to break down and cause lines, besides the outrages costs of our tax dollars, there is the also the fact that the average poll worker age is 72, and may not be up to speed on DOS.

Which is the even bigger problem with these electronic voting machines. An overwhelmed poll worker, this county clerk, even the Secretary of State of West Virginia can't even look inside these voting machines. They're protected by trade secrets, the software is confidential, and the private company of ES&S are the only ones who knows for sure what goes into their machines. If any other industry suggested that to banks, casinos, stock traders, they would be laughed out of their sales meeting.

I for one do not blame the county clerk forced to defend and recalibrate this computer system. If he had paper ballots, which anyone can see and don't disappear when you unplug them, he wouldn't be explaining the circumstances where people see their votes register differently than they intended.

What I fear people debating this video are missing is in many of the thousand or so comments on this video. Reactions like: "Why should this even have to be calibrated? Why can't I vote on something more reliable after all the daily technology we use like ATMs?"

Look, I'm not a tech guru. I am just some dude. I was fed up with not trusting our political process, so I went out with a camera through Ohio to find out if our elections are subverted. (You can see the documentary Free For All! online for free at www.freeforall.tv.) In the course of my journey, I joined with other activists and filmmakers to launch Video the Vote in 2006 to capture election problems at the polls and report them immediately.

Each of our reports leading up to the 2008 election have sought to empower the voter through awareness, such as checking their registration, voting early, and in this case, checking your touch screen results before you walk away from the machine.

I encourage all of you to join us at www.videothevote.org and become a part of the citizen oversight of our elections. Help everyone get the story straight.

Follow John Wellington Ennis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnennis