THE BLOG
03/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to the U.S. Media on Elections

OPEN LETTER TO THE MEDIA from Mimi Kennedy, National Advisory Board Chair, Progressive Democrats of America

Most people know the fundamental questions of good reporting: Who, What, When, Where and Why. A fifth question, an "H", is sometimes taught: How?

We, the election protection community in the United States, challenge the U.S. media to start asking the H question as a matter of course in election reporting.

How is the vote being cast and counted in any particular race being covered?

In this age of privatized voting technology and unfettered funds pouring into every aspect of elections, it is no longer good reporting to election night numbers as the decisive end of the campaign narrative. Though pundits and politicians, weary of the story, are happy to omit facts about voting systems and their private contractors running our public elections, such omissions impair voters and democracy itself.

Election results are, and have always been, vulnerable to tampering by competing interests that fight expensive, hard-won campaigns. Especially after the Roberts' court's reckless decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the power of money to secure election outcomes must be seen as extending to the count, whether the count is conducted on hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots or proprietary software on computer. In Kenya the incumbent government used murder and intimidation to threaten challengers of anomalous hand-counted results. In Afghanistan, confessed fraud (presumably on hand-marked, hand-counted ballots, but I saw no reports about voting methods used) did not interfere with acceptance of results. In the United States, activists who challenge anomalies in software-run elections have been harassed and derided by public officials and their subcontractors while being ignored by most of the media.

Election victories increasingly depend on factors other than who votes, or tries to vote, and for whom. In 2000, the presidency was awarded by the Supreme Court, pre-empting the count of thousands of Florida votes.

In 2006, a California congressional race was decided by House leadership, which swore in the victor with an election challenge going forward and votes far in excess of the announced margin of victory uncounted. The Constitution grants the House jurisdiction over its members' qualifications, including their elections, so the action nullified both the election challenge and the uncounted votes.

In 2002, The Help America Vote Act established national mandates for election standards. While admirable in concept, the new standards delivered management of American elections to a handful of private voting machine companies whose software and hardware met the standards and were ready to deploy. These companies sold their equipment and services nationwide to jurisdictions that were under threat of action by the Justice Department if they were not HAVA-compliant by 2006. Almost every vote in the U.S. is now counted by these private companies on software kept from public view. Two have since merged.

Other public election services subcontracted to private contractors are: voter registration, ballot design, absentee voting process, office management, and the keeping of records and computer event logs. The databases that store information formerly assumed to be (and in fact) part of the public record are now protected by the private companies' intellectual property rights. Election oversight by public citizens has become effectively impossible, though throughout our democracy it has been assumed necessary to prevent fraud and it is mandated in many states, including California. But this new situation has outstripped the capacity of the law to govern it. Government and citizens are as impotent against modern election manipulation as we are against Wall Street excess in the age of electronic trading and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

Across the nation, the election protection movement attracts ordinary citizens who educate their neighbors about their voting systems and the private companies that built and run them. Without this knowledge, even rudimentary citizen oversight is impossible. Voters must learn what equipment they'll face in the polling place and how to pay attention to tabulation and announcements of results. It is difficult work; systems and contractors vary from state to state and within states. Many public officials feel threatened by citizen oversight. Others, recognizing their mandate is to preserve voter intent from manipulation, are grateful. The public has a right to know, at the very least - how (on what system) we vote in our local jurisdiction and Who are the private contractors doing our public election business?

We call on our media to report these facts. They are easily obtained and are far more pertinent to voters' actual experience than media speculation about their shifting moods or reports of private, paid-for polls. At present, these facts are generally only reported in post-election disputes, when they come too late for an organized effort at transparency.

The anonymous secret ballot is as fungible - transferrable -as the dollar. At present, it is easy to steal. From casting to counting, our votes must be better-protected in all voting systems. An easy first step is for you, the media in a free country, to ask How voters cast their votes in covered races and How they are counted, along with Who is the subcontractor serving the election jurisdiction - and to publish the information. If anyone accuses you of partisanship, or undermining democracy in doing so, I trust you would recognize the emergence of another story: Why?

Mimi Kennedy, National Advisory Board Chair, Progressive Democrats of America

Bev Harris, Black Box Voting
Sherry Healey, California Election Protection Network
Susan Pynchon, Florida Fair Elections Coalition
Brad Friedman, The BRAD BLOG, co-founder VelvetRevolution.us
Sheri Myers, WorkTheVoteLosAngeles
John Brakey, Americans United for Democracy, Integrity, and Transparency in Elections, AZ
David Swanson, author, Daybreak; AfterDowningStreet.org
David Earnhardt, filmmaker, Uncounted