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Memo On EVEREST Report and SEC Brunner’s Recommendations

Key battleground state missing opportunity to correct security flaws; potential to disenfranchise thousands.

December 17, 2007
TO: Voting Reporters
FROM: Larry Norden, Chair of the Brennan Center Task Force on Voting System Security
DATE: December 17, 2007

Last week, Ohio Secretary of State Brunner released an analysis of Ohio’s voting systems that showed them to have major security and reliability flaws. Secretary Brunner should be commended for initiating this study and helping jump start a conversation about how Ohio can best secure its elections and make sure that all eligible citizens are able to vote.

Unfortunately, missing from much of the coverage of the report is the fact that some of Secretary Brunner’s recommendations to address the voting system security flaws have been met with a good deal of dismay in the voting rights and election integrity communities. These groups believe Brunner’s recommendations could result in the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters (disproportionately poor, elderly and minority) AND at the same time create new security and reliability risks. In particular, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and other state and national groups have taken issue with the following recommendations:

o Eliminate counting of votes at polling places and move to central count. There are at least two problems with this proposal.

o First, this could eliminate the overvote protection voters get at the polling place (the machines reject ballots where voters have cast a vote for more than one candidate). This is estimated to have saved about one million votes in 2004, disproportionately among minorities and low income voters.

o Second, counting all votes in a central location without the benefit of precinct totals is a recipe for massive error, particularly if there is no post-election audit (which is not part of the Secretary’s recommendations). A programming error, software glitch or insider attack on a central scanner could result in incorrect totals on a massive scale, in a way that is far less likely to occur if votes are first tallied at individual precincts.

o Move to vote by mail. The Secretary recommends requiring “all Special Elections” be “held in August 2008 to be voted by mail” and that the state “adopt legislation to allow a county to vote on whether it desires to vote by mail for a temporary or permanent period of time.”

o Absent a massive public education effort, for which there is probably not enough time before the August 2008 Special Elections, a move to all vote-by-mail carries the same risks already discussed above: namely, disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters (particularly elderly, low literacy, low-income and minority voters) who will not have the benefit of overvote protection, along with increased security and reliability risks of counting all county ballots in a single location.

o Additionally, Ohio has no experience delivering so many ballots through the post office, and has not developed the appropriate security measures to ensure that ballots are not tampered with or replaced. Trying this for the first time in a Presidential Election year with little advanced planning could be a recipe for major problems.

o Finally, there is at least some evidence that vote by mail could negatively impact low-income and minority turnout while disproportionately benefiting affluent voters.

o Move to Vote Centers, Eliminating Voting at Individual Polling Places of Less than 5 Precints.

o While this recommendation deserves study, it should not be implemented before it is clear how elimination of local polling places will affect the ability of low-income voters (who may not have cars or access to good public transportation) to get to the polls. We do not believe such a study can be completed before August or November 2008.

Part of the reason for the dismay of many voting rights groups is that in the short term, the most obvious way to address the flaws found in the Ohio voting system study is to do things Secretary Brunner did not suggest: institute better procedures for handling and using the machines, and conduct post-election audits comparing the paper and electronic records, to make sure problems with the machines did not result in inaccurate totals.

To discuss these issues further or for more information, please contact Larry Norden at 212–998–6322 or Mr. Norden directs the voting technology assessment project at the Brennan Center and is the author of the book The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World.