Aug 12, 2007

What Happened in Ames?

I must confess; I am definitely a Ron Paul Junkie. I currently work two jobs. One provides a meager wage while my partner and I bootstrap a start-up. The other is the start-up. On Saturday, the day of the Ames Straw Poll, I had to work out the technical issues for a Sunday launch of a new software version.  In spite of Sunday night's looming deadline, I found myself with three browser windows open, one tuned to JustinTV, one locked on to RedStateEclectic and the other directed at Lew Rockwell's blog. In between deploying and testing software, I was refreshing the blogs to get up-to-the-minute reports. Thank goodness for the Internet and live blogging or I might have had to abandon the start-up. There's more truth than humor in that last statement though I probably won't be enrolling in a twelve-step program until after the general election.

So what happened in Iowa? The results are a mixed bag. Fifth is a commendable finish at this point in Ron Paul's campaign. With 9.1% of the vote total, Ron Paul's campaign has called into serious question the credibility of major polling organizations who put his support at 2% or less in the state of Iowa. The result exceeds poll results plus the margin of error for almost every poll conducted. Fifth won't put Ron Paul in the White House. However, the result indicates that significant momentum is building for the Ron Paul campaign. He can no longer be considered "fringe" - though he probably will continue to be characterized as such, or ignored, by the mainstream media.

Roughly 26,000 tickets were sold to the Straw Poll. The final vote tally was 14,302 some 9,500 less than the 1999 Straw Poll. Clearly, there wasn't a lot of excitement for the GOP field by Iowa Republicans this year. But why the discrepancy between recorded votes and the number of tickets sold? The 12,000 vote discrepancy could be accounted for by people who didn't show up to claim tickets purchased for them by campaign organizers. Marc Jacoby of The Wall Street Journal reported Romney might purchase up to 10,000 tickets:

Iowa Republicans say they expect Mr. Romney to purchase about 10,000 tickets to the event for supporters. A spokesman for Mr. Romney, Kevin Madden, called that number "grossly inflated" but declined to say how many tickets the campaign would buy. Any Iowa resident who attends can vote.

If Romney did purchase 10,000 tickets he certainly didn't get his money's worth. The expenditure resulted in a little less than half that many casting a vote for him. The Ron Paul campaign reported a purchase of around 800 tickets. Assuming the vote is properly counted, Ron Paul received roughly 500 more votes than the campaign purchased. But there's the rub. Was the vote properly counted? As conspiratorial as that question may sound, it is being asked more and more with regard to U.S. elections and for good reasons. For one, it is a legitimate question. For another, there have been enough elections tainted by the use of electronic voting machines to cause the ermergence of a cottage industry in activism dedicated to scrutinizing and improving voting practices.

An hour after the deadline to announce the results had passed the Atlantic reported 4500 votes had to be re-counted. The De Moines Register later reported that 1500 votes were under scrutiny. It is unclear which number is correct. According to the Iowa GOP, there were 20 voting machines and a total of 14,203 votes. The average for each machine would be 710 votes per machine - assuming all machines were used equally. The De Moines Register article reports two machines having problems which would be consistent with the 1500 votes report. The Register also reports that ballots were recounted by hand and then fed into a ballot scanner. The electronic counter's tally was the one used for the final announcement, not manual recounts. 

In 1995, the Ames vote tally was delayed by over two hours. Alan Keyes grew impatient enough to march up to the Iowa GOP Straw Poll offices that year and demand that the door be opened and that officials make an accounting of their activities. They shortly came out to report that Bob Dole and Phil Graham had tied, each receiving 2582 votes. This was the first year that the Iowa GOP had made use of electronic voting machines. The result was controversial but wasn't challenged.

Prior to this year's Straw Poll, activists raised questions about the use of electronic voting machines. A small group demanded that the Iowa GOP use paper ballots and that the ballots be visible throughout the entire process. They even went so far as to file a lawsuit. A Judge threw out the suit on the grounds that this wasn't a real election. The Iowa GOP, though it didn't concede any demands, was forced to respond. It issued a statement on August 8, attempting to alleviate any concerns about the security and accuracy of the upcoming vote. Unfortunately, it raised more questions than it answered.

The Diebold machines used for counting Straw Poll votes were the "Accu vote Optical Scan (OSx) tabulator", according to the Iowa GOP.  The machines are leased from Diebold by the State of Iowa for use in local and federal elections. Iowa election officials would be tasked with certifying Straw Poll results. While the lawsuit filed may have had no legal merit, it is somewhat troubling that the same machines to be used in the primaries and general election proved to be unreliable. Whether or not the equipment properly counted the votes is a question that can only be answered by a manual recount of the paper ballots. Since Ron Paul supporters can be proud of the results, and won't want to invite charges of "sour grapes", we may never know the answer.

When supporters initially raised questions about how votes might be recounted, the Iowa GOP responded with conflicting answers. To Arizona radio host Ernest Hancock, Mary Tiffany, the Iowa GOP communications director, claimed that there would be no hand recounting of paper ballots if problems arose. On August 7, Jesse Benton, Director of Communications for the Ron Paul campaign, revealed to radio host Dale Williams that the Iowa GOP had informed him a paper ballot recount would cost the campaign 184,000 dollars - the equivalent of 5,250 tickets to the show.

What the Iowa GOP didn't disclose in its attempt to reassure, was that the Story county elections officials overseeing the Straw Poll results, also worked for, and had received campaign donations from Mitt Romney. Mary Mosiman, the Story County auditor for elections, is on Mitt Romney's leadership team. David A. Vaudt, quoted in the Register article, received $1000 from Romney's Commonwealth PAC in 2004. Mitt Romney's team counted the votes. That's what the Iowa GOP meant when they wrote "Voting at the Iowa Straw Poll: Fraud-Proof, Honest & Secure".

Those who cast the Votes, they decide nothing. Those who count the votes, they decide everything. The Memoirs of former Stalin's secretary (1992) by Boris Bazhanov

Saturday's glitch in Iowa did not involve ballot output; it involved ballot counting. The machines used for recording votes delivered paper ballots. Those ballots were scanned by Diebold's optical scanning machines and the totals produced by the machines were then delivered to Straw Poll officials.

Vickie Karp is the National Chair of the Coalition for Visible Ballots and PR Director of VoteRescue. She is also co-editor and co-author with Abbe Delozier of the book HACKED!  High Tech Election Theft in America. I talked with her at length on Sunday about what happened at the Straw Poll and nationwide efforts to insure transparent and accurate elections. VoteRescue’s founder, Karen Renick, authored a bill that was sponsored by a member of the Texas' Legislature which would have required hand-counted paper ballots in all precincts in Texas, no exceptions. Unfortunately, the bill never made it out of committee. Counting paper ballots by hand, with property security measures, says Karp, "is the only way that vote results can be trusted."

The New York Times and other mainstream outlets have treated the issue of vote fraud with a jaundiced eye. This has extended into alternative media sources. Karp says that the issue does have a conspiratorial patina applied by the mainstream media. "What I tell people is that they can either continue to stick their head in the sand or take a look at the hard data available. There is plenty of it. The mainstream is owned by a total of six corporations [all licensed and regulated by the federal government]. Of course they're going to treat this as conspiratorial."

Many, including myself, find it extremely uncomfortable to think that our elections can be easily manipulated. Supporting a candidate with time and money could be rendered fruitless and that is almost unbearable to consider.

Karp and I discussed the claim made by Iowa GOP officials that the vote was secure and transparent. Karp says that this simply cannot be considered credible. The mere use of the electronic ballot counters removes the count from view, even if there is a poll-watcher present during the ballot counting process. What occurs inside the machine can't be verified by a novice. Indeed, the software is proprietary. No third-party can verify what is occurring inside the box and voting companies want to protect their intellectual property. Kathleen Wynn, formerly the Associate Director of Black Box Voting, and one of the researchers and videographers who filmed Bev Harris during the making of "Hacking Democracy", had originally planned to document the Ames vote count. But the vote counting was closed to the public, and especially to citizen videographers, so for her that rendered a trip pointless.

The issue of accuracy in elections reaches far beyond Ames. In many states, the incestuous nature of election machine manufacturers and public officials goes unchecked. In San Diego County, the current registrar of voters, Deborah Seiler, was the very person who sold the county its voting machines while she worked as an employee of Diebold. In numerous states, election officials appear on voting manufacturers' marketing brochures. While it may be hard to prove malfeasance on the part of elected officials, concern for their careers would probably not motivate them to admit that electronic voting isn't secure.

In "Hacking Democracy", (an HBO documentary which has been nominated for an Emmy this year), Bev Harris and associates demonstrate how easily electronic voting machines can be hacked to change election results. In fact, the very same machines used to count votes in Ames yesterday. It was so easily demonstrated that as a result, California, Iowa and Pennsylvania were forced to remove Diebold machines from use prior to the May, 2006 elections. State investigations into ballot scanning and recording machines have recently caused Florida and California officials to suspend certification for certain models until proper security patches can be delivered. One of the machines implicated in the California and Florida studies is the same model used for the Straw Poll's count on Saturday.

An important point Karp makes regarding election technology is that it should be verifiable by the majority of the electorate who are not technology experts.  Voters should not have to put their trust in technology experts to inform them when elections are secure. The experts may be trustworthy and credentialed. But voters should not have to put their faith in machines and experts when it comes to such a simple task as tallying vote totals. The vote should be easily verified by any literate person able to count.

The very act of questioning elections officials in any capacity will invariably lead to controversy and hard-feelings. An open, transparent process, something that has been recently lacking in U.S. elections, must be restored so that the electorate and election officials are not at odds with each other. For Karp, VoteRescue, the Coalition for Visible Ballots, and many other election integrity activists around the country, this would mean paper ballots, hand-counted at the precinct level, with security measures and totals posted at the precinct level. 

There is no way to know whether the vote was properly tabulated on Saturday. Any push to hand-count the paper ballots (if they still exist) will invariably create friction and it may not be worth it, politically or personally to perform an autopsy in Ames. However, the same machines, elected officials and processes will be used in the upcoming primaries and general election. The grass-roots needs to keep this in mind as the campaigns roll on. Ron Paul is not the only candidate effected and Ron Paul's supporters are not the only voters who will be at the mercy of the closed, insecure, electronic systems used nationwide.

Treating this as a fringe issue is not an option. Yes, there will be the necessity to partition efforts away from any candidate's message and the temptation to enhance personal agendas is something to avoid. But no candidate can expect to prevail if the very means by which the voters endorse them is compromised by an insecure, secret process which cannot be verified by any willing citizen.


Karen Renick said...


You have written an excellent article about the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll, including all of the backstage dramas and characters associated with the Diebold scanner "glitches".

Have you considered submitting this to Op Ed News? I know they are interested in carrying an article about the Iowa Straw Poll. E-mail Joan Brunwasser at, OK?

Good Luck!!

Karen Renick
Director, VoteRescue
Austin, TX

Anonymous said...

There were eleven names on the ballot. The count attributed to Ron Paul was almost exactly one eleventh.

Even if there was fraud, is the right response to cry fraud?

Rick Fisk said...

There's no way without counting the paper ballots to know if there is fraud. So I don't think it's appropriate to cry "fraud" unless those paper ballots are counted.

As I point out, even demanding the recount would probably not be in RP campaign best interests - especially since the "election" didn't count for anything.

Anonymous said...

Great write up. I was present and you are acurate.

J Stewart said...

For another take on it, "Margin of Error Ballots of Straw." This political intrigue/romance has made a true believer out of me. Can the voting machines be hacked? Absolutely. Could a more sinister motive from an insider be the cause of the chronic voting anomolies? I wonder.