It may be a testament to the state of our political discourse when you can feel such pride over a politician doing what they promised. Debra Bowen was elected on a platform of reforming elections in California. She quickly announced that there would be a top-to-bottom review of all voting systems and real consequences for those that didn’t meet compliance. She spent five months conducting that review. And, what do you know, she stuck to that vow by de-certifying voting systems used in 39 counties across the state, with the option to re-certify some systems if changes are made before the deadline of the February 2008 election. Politicians who don’t make empty promises to please voters? What a revolution!
This is an act of political courage, though in a perfect world it wouldn’t be. County registrars have controlled the voting process in California for a number of years now. They spent upward of $450 million to upgrade their systems after the debacle of Florida in 2000 and the federal passage of HAVA, the Help America Vote Act. The focus was on getting new systems, not on making sure if those systems were reliable, if they could be manipulated, if the integrity of the vote would be maintained. And so they went on a shopping spree, purchasing electronic voting machines from the likes of Diebold and Sequoia Systems. These machines had fundamental flaws, unaccountable source code and hackable software.
Diebold’s machines operated on Microsoft OS, which could be penetrated with little trouble. They simply did not pass the test of reliability that would give a secretary of state confidence in the fairness and security of our elections. But they sure looked shiny and fresh enough to give everyone confidence at the time. “Voting on a computer,” everyone wondered. “What could go wrong? It’s not like my computer ever breaks down at home!”
The system-wide test performed by the University of California at Secretary of State Bowen’s behest only reinforced this concern. Researchers were able to get into some voting machines by using a hotel minibar key. The barrier to entry was extremely low and the data was voluminous. There was little else Bowen could do.
The chief complaint from Bowen’s critics of this action is that it will now be prohibitively expensive to change to certifiable systems like paper ballots.
That’s a question I would like to see put before the people of the state. Is it worth it to you to pay a little more for a secure democracy? Where can we all sign up to pay our Patriot Tax? Anyway, there’s an even more cost-effective solution that Californians have already been moving toward on their own. In the 2006 California primary, over 46 percent of the electorate voted by absentee ballot. Bowen has instituted the “permanent absentee” provision, which will allow residents to receive a ballot in the mail before every election. Oregon votes entirely by mail and has seen their turnout numbers go up at a great savings to the taxpayer.
Innovations like vote-by-mail (and perhaps same-day registration and public campaign financing) just might bring democracy on the verge of a comeback. But not without the courage of leaders like Bowen, who is at the forefront of the state’s progressive movement. Bowen received a great deal of campaign contributions from small donors in 2006, and used grassroots skillfully to organize and get out the vote. She was one of just two California Democrats to beat an incumbent Republican last year (the other was Jerry McNerney). Bowen is paying back those supporters by acting boldly on the most salient issue to them: the concerns over easily breached electronic voting systems. In doing so, she is going up against a lot of institutional forces that habitually resist change. For example, Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee wrote a silly article claiming that, since no crime has been committed and that the lab tests were performed in a lab, Bowen acted recklessly and with the backing of “conspiracy theorists.”
The new standard for voter fraud is to prosecute it after it happens, apparently. And the prosecutor will be the winner of the rigged vote, I gather. Sounds like a plan!
Bowen is that rare politician who actually pays heed to what she said to get elected, and carries it out after being elected. That this is rare is in itself an indictment of the political process. But I believe that Bowen represents a new hope for California politics, one where honesty, integrity and principle are valued above everything else. If the clean-money bill is passed next year and a publicly financed election put in place for the gubernatorial race in 2010, perhaps a draft movement will start for this woman to lead the state rather than just fix our elections.