Imagine what opportunities nineteenth-century politicos like Matt Quay would see in the recent trend toward paying private companies to count the votes in our elections. It might take the old Pennsylvania Republican boss a while to understand innovations like electronic voting and computerized voter lists. But he’d soon see how the new trends could give him high-tech versions of the low-tech practices he knew so well.
As the GOP’s national chairman during the 1888 presidential election, Quay managed to eke out a narrow victory -- in the electoral vote, anyway -- for Benjamin Harrison. He later said Harrison “would never learn how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president.”
If no one ended up behind bars, it was no thanks to Quay’s colleague, GOP national treasurer William Dudley. He wrote to party operatives in Indiana, assuring them he had secured “the aid necessary” to give Harrison a 10,000 vote plurality in that swing state. Dudley told them to organize the “floaters” they bribed into blocks of five under the charge of “a trusted man with the necessary funds.”
The letter fell into the hands of Democrats, who released it to the press. The ensuing scandal embarrassed the GOP, but it wasn’t enough to blunt Harrison’s thin edge over incumbent Grover Cleveland.
Whether Dudley was careless or merely unlucky, his problem was that it was not easy to bribe, intimidate, and impersonate -- the most common ways of stealing elections at the time -- while keeping these actions hidden. In the retail politics of the nineteenth century, elections were labor-intensive affairs in which even illegal votes had to be bought or stolen one person at a time. The more voters you bribed, the greater your risk.
Nineteenth-century machine pols would immediately see the beauty of a system that let them steal elections without bribing a single voter. That’s what can be done with the insecure, poorly tested vote-counting software touted by today’s electronic voting companies. No more keeping a tight rein on unreliable “floater” voters. No more paying riffraff to impersonate storekeepers and church deacons. Instead of bribing people to vote a particular way, let them vote anyway they like. Their votes can be changed later if the need arises. No one will know.
Computer scientists and security experts say the systems are so insecure they can be manipulated from inside -- by government poll workers and employees of the contractors -- and hacked from the outside. No one will know because those experts also say such vote-tampering would be nearly impossible to detect. E-voting systems also aren’t open to public scrutiny. The code is proprietary, written and owned by the vendors hired to record and count the votes.
The unreliability of software has set off alarm bells for some election administrators. But others -- the State of Maryland, for example -- press ahead with multimillion-dollar contracts to private vendors even after commissioning studies that find the vendor’s systems to be riddled with vulnerabilities. When experts are on record as saying that computer voting technology is less accurate than lever machines, paper ballots, and optically scanned ballots -- as a Caltech-MIT study concluded in 2001 -- you have to wonder why any government would spend the voters’ money on systems that can’t be trusted to count their votes.
Under these circumstances, you’d think government election officials and private vendors would be very sensitive to appearances. Yet, as has been widely reported, Walden O’Dell, the chairman, president, and CEO of the e-voting company Diebold, is also one of George W. Bush’s top fundraisers. Or he was until very recently, when his partisan activities became too embarrassingly public. And Chuck Hagel (R-NE) launched his successful candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1996, barely a year after stepping down as chairman of American Information Systems (now Election Systems & Software) -- the e-voting company that counted the votes in that election.
Before votes can be counted, they first have to be cast. Here is where modern technology may be able to upgrade another old election practice. What do you do about people you know will vote for the other party? In the old days you could bribe some of them not to vote and hire hooligans to scare others away on election day. These crude methods probably didn’t reduce turnout by more than a few hundred people at most.
To see the huge improvement made by computerized voter scrub lists, imagine how many paid thugs it would take to keep thousands of people from voting. Then look at how easily thousands of valid voters were purged from the rolls in Florida in 2000. Most of those purged probably had died, moved, or had lost their right to vote by committing felonies. They would have been purged even using the traditional method of having county election officers scrub the lists under the scrutiny of representatives from both parties. But Florida outsourced the task to a private company, and it didn’t operate under bipartisan scrutiny. The result was that many, perhaps thousands, of people purged for being felons weren’t felons at all. And if most of those turned out to be African-Americans, who probably would have voted for Al Gore . . . well, mistakes happen. The vendor didn’t always get clean data, and we all know about garbage in, garbage out.
We shouldn’t assume that partisan machinations are always, or even usually, behind such mistakes. Awarding government contracts to companies that do substandard work isn’t as rare as we would like. Political partisanship probably accounts for only a small part of the corruption, fraud, and incompetence in the world. Still, you have to wonder if the defects in these computer systems aren’t part of their attraction. How often does unreliability mean deniability?
The machine pols of yesteryear would see at once how much easier it would be to dissociate themselves from software than from a gang of hooligans or “a trusted man with the necessary funds.” If they are gazing down at us now from their final reward, they must be wide-eyed with wonder at the possibility of giving their cronies fat contracts to count the votes that kept them in power. You can almost hear the laughter coming out of that big smoke-filled room in the sky.
Mr. Mutch is the author of Campaigns, Congress and Courts (Praeger 1988), a political history of federal campaign finance law.
Copyright 2004 History News Network