By Brad Friedman on 9/16/2009, 10:55pm PT  

Okay. Allow me to be as fair as possible, right off the top, following that headline. The all-day symposium which LA County Registrar/Recorder & County Clerk Dean Logan was kind enough to personally invite me to attend today at the California Institute of Technology, put "Technology" before "Democracy" at least in the title of the event...

...So technology came titularly before democracy, if not more so, as I good-naturedly chided Logan this afternoon. Though, in truth, it also tended to take the lead in at least those parts of the day that I was able to attend. But its hard to blame Logan for that. It's become the trend in the "election industry" over the last few years, where techno-scientists, private corporations and others (both well-meaning and less so) have seized the day (and the tax-payer dollars), to place techno-"solutions" far ahead of the real needs of citizens and their Constitutional requirements for true, democratic self-governance.

To his credit, that wasn't necessarily Logan's purpose in scheduling or naming this symposium, meant to begin opening the process of selecting a new voting system for the nation's largest voting jurisdiction to selected "stake-holders". And the good news is, the ultimate solution (complete transparency) to our voting system woes, did tend to bubble up towards the top, to the apparent surprise of some, as the day worn on...

I missed the morning session, where techno-centric folks from CalTech and MIT addressed the assembled, so I can't comment one way or another on their presentations. Similarly, I wasn't there for Sequoia Voting System, Inc.'s e-voting champion and U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) commissioner Donetta Davidson's address. Perhaps they all argued for full citizen oversight of every aspect of elections, such as the tallying thereof, though it would be hard to imagine.

Those favoring technology, over full public/citizen administration/tallying of elections, had lead speaking roles. Those who didn't, didn't. They weren't invited to address the assembled at all.

But at least there were a (very) small number of us, if not nearly enough, invited to the event so that we were able to speak for the citizen election integrity advocates in a couple of the afternoon breakout sessions. And it seems that at least some of our points were heard.

Speaking at the closing remarks, LA County's Election Tally Systems Manager Ken Bennett, the man charged with overseeing much of the county's election technology, summarized what he'd taken away from some of those sessions. "We need to think about transparency and auditability as the key components to accuracy and security," he said. (I'm paraphrasing there, but that's pretty close.)

Good points. And it was good to hear it from someone in Bennett's position.

While others in my particular break-out session seemed to treat the notion of hand-counting paper ballots at the polling place --- which, as I've recently pointed out, is "Democracy's Gold Standard" --- like an idea that just landed from the planet Mars, the conversation has begun.

Of course, several of those same folks also seemed to have little idea that thousands of op-scan paper ballots went completely uncounted in LA County's 2008 Super Tuesday Election, that computer-printed ballots can easily misprint ballots, as they did when I voted in the '08 state primary, that touch-screen voting systems, even with so-called "voter-verifiable paper trails" are 100% unverifiable, that virtually every e-voting system currently certified at the federal level actually fails to meet statutory federal accuracy requirements, or that optical-scan paper ballot systems can be easily hacked in such a way that nobody was ever likely to notice, or even be able to do anything about it if they did.

Last year, at an election integrity event which both Logan and I attended, I asked him whether he might consider a pilot program to test the viability and accuracy of precinct-based hand-counted paper ballots as he considered a new voting system for Los Angeles. In the short exchange --- captured on video --- Logan conceded that he was "not closed to that idea," while he (understandably) would not "make a commitment" to such a pilot project then and there.

"I'm not gonna stand here and make a commitment to a specific pilot project, tonight," he said. "But what I will say is I have a history, both here and in my previous work in Washington, of doing pilot projects. So I'm not closed to that idea."

Fair enough. But we are now more than a year on from that public exchange, and as Los Angeles prepares to spend millions of tax-payer dollars on a new system to replace its existing one, which has failed many times over, shouldn't citizen-counted paper ballots at least be allowed a fair shot in the bargain? We've had ample opportunities, to date, for such a pilot program, but we've yet to see one.

Disappointingly, only three systems were presented to the assembled as possibilities for LA's future voting system, as I was told, during the morning session: Two of them were optically-scanned paper ballot systems, and a third was a DRE (Direct Recording Electronic, in this case, a "touch-screen") system.

If, as Logan said today, he wasn't trying to push any particular voting system yet, but rather, wishes to hear from the "stake-holders" as the process moves forward, shouldn't fully-transparent, precinct-based, citizen-counted paper ballots at least be included among the systems examined, considered and tested?

As I wrote in my recent Op-Ed for the Commonweal Institute: "While hand-counted paper ballots are routinely discredited by those who stand to gain from secret vote counting, you'll note the odd paradox that in the closest of elections, those same individuals are often the first to demand a fully public hand-count of paper ballots ... to determine who actually won and who actually lost."

If citizen-overseen hand-counts are therefore "Democracy's Gold Standard", the ultimate arbiter of who won and who lost any election, why not examine the pros and cons of a system which hand-counts ballots in the first place, before --- once again --- wasting millions of tax-payer dollars on yet another electronic system that is likely to fail as brilliantly as virtually every other electronic system currently in use across the country already has?

My great thanks to the Registrar for kick-starting the conversation and inviting me to take part in it. I hope many others like myself will be invited to participate in the next part of the conversation, and that fully-transparent elections will be considered along with other non-transparent systems.

Let's put "Democracy" before "Technology" for a change. LA County now has a very good opportunity to examine the possibilities of doing exactly that.