Menus Subscribe Search

Report: Vendor Control Undermines Elections

• August 19, 2008 • 11:05 PM

Nonprofit group claims vote-counting machine vendors are the ones in control during some elections.

A new report by the nonprofit VotersUnite.org lays out an anecdotal case for how corporations that make and service electronic voting machines have gained substantial control of the American election system, and it outlines what public officials can do as the November presidential election approaches.

The report arrives as a growing number of mainstream media outlets have joined Miller-McCune.com in examining flaws and irregularities in e-voting procedures across the nation, leading the number of voters expected to use touch-screen voting this November to fall from 44 percent to 36 percent.

Within the 53-page report, “Vendors are Undermining the Structure of U.S. Elections,” voting rights activists led by VotersUnite.org co-director Ellen Theisen present several case studies to illustrate the pervasive control the makers of voting machines have over election administration in many states.

Complex electronic voting machines — both optical scanners that count paper ballots and direct-recording electronic voting machines — require a level of expertise to maintain that election officials often do not possess.

Compounding this, vendors limit access to the inner workings of their machines due to claims of “proprietary information” that the companies seek to protect.

“The election officials are accountable, but in some cases it’s the vendors that are actually running the election,” Theisen said. With computer scientists at leading universities showing that most electronic vote-counting machines fail regularly — as Miller-McCune.com previously reported — oversight becomes exceptionally important.

Case in point: After a technician for Election Systems & Software allegedly caused an error in tabulating the ballots in Angelina County, Texas, in March 2008, the county ordered a recount. But in order to conduct the recount, county election officials needed the company’s help. At the same time, ES&S forced administrators to agree to continue paying for maintenance and administration through November. Now the county is incapable of running elections without the help of the corporation that made the machines.

“I guess you can say my hands are tied,” wrote Thelma Sherman, Angelina County election administrator, in a letter to ES&S obtained by Black Box Voting, a nonprofit voter rights group.

The same holds true in other states such as Hawaii, which is so “dependent on a vendor to run elections that an officer of the state believes delaying cancellation of an invalid contract with a vendor is necessary to ensure that the 2008 elections can be held,” according to the report.

A November 2003 audit of 13 California counties found that Diebold, now Premier Election Solutions, had installed uncertified equipment without the knowledge of state and local election administrators. In San Diego and other counties, the machines caused extraordinary malfunctions in the 2004 election.

In Miller County, Ark., election administrator Robby Selph said he resigned in 2007 because ES&S technicians were so difficult to work with.

“They leave races off the ballot for us to correct, they can’t program their software to work and you have to hand add the results,” he told the Texarkana Gazette at the time.

The report elaborates on these and other stories of elections gone awry because of corporate involvement. A complete list of election malfunctions can be found here.

Researchers then offer solutions by highlighting the story in Luzerne County, Pa., where election director Leonard Piazza in 2006 refused to allow ES&S to service its voting machines. Instead, Piazza and his staff perform most maintenance functions and ballot design programming without letting vendor representatives upgrade the machines or come near county precincts during an election.

It’s not too late, Theisen said, for more public officials to take election administration into their own hands come November.

David Rosenfeld
David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.

More From David Rosenfeld

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Israeli researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.