July 5, 2006 - Election 2006: Looming, dire question of trust
Copyright 2006 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Sacramento Bee ( California)
July 5, 2006 Wednesday
METRO FINAL EDITION
SECTION: EDITORIALS; Pg. B7
LENGTH: 877 words
HEADLINE: Election 2006: Looming, dire question of trust
BYLINE: Peter Schrag
Last month's race in California 's 50th Congressional District in San Diego County between Republican Brian Bilbray and Democrat Francine Busby was regarded by many observers as an indicator of whether the Democrats could recapture the House in November.
But the response to the election may foretell as much or more about the level of confidence Americans will have in the reported results in November as they do about who controls the House in January. If you Google the words Bilbray, Busby and Diebold, you'll get 67,000 hits, most of them casting doubt on whether the reported results -- 78,000 votes (49.5 percent) for Bilbray, 71,000 (45 percent) for Busby, according the San Diego registrar of voters -- could really be trusted. Diebold's electronic voting machines are the X factor.
The seat, as almost everybody knows, was vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the high-living felonious congressman who was forced to exchange his seat in one institution for a term in a much less pleasant one.
The 50th has long been a safely Republican district that Bilbray ought to have won easily. It shouldn't have been a bellwether for anything. But this is not an ordinary year for reasons too numerous to list. Cunningham was just one example of the long list of crooks and other shabby characters -- members of Congress and the administration, staffers, lobbyists and various influence peddlers -- who've disgraced Washington in this new Gilded Age.
Bilbray almost certainly won the election. But you'll never convince thousands of Californians, not all of them Democrats, most of them not kooks, that the reported results were accurate.
The chief piece of evidence is those electronic Diebold machines, whose reputation as eminently hackable and whose other problems, political and mechanical, have dogged them for years. Combine that with the fact that San Diego election officials allowed poll workers to take the machines home for what one critic called "sleepovers" -- some of them for more than a week -- and you have a pretty good case for suspicion.
In San Diego and elsewhere in California, the machines were protected by triple seals. They have a seal on the crucial memory card, on the machine itself and on the storage case, each put on after the machine is checked, each bearing its serial number. These and other security requirements probably justify the claim that, in the words of Assistant Secretary of State Susan Lapsley, " California has the strictest standards in the nation."
Even Brad Friedman, the liberal blogger primarily responsible for touching off this new round of doubt, doesn't say the machines were fiddled with or that the election was stolen. But with support from Tribune Media Services columnist Bob Koehler, CNN's Lou Dobbs and some liberal vote-watch groups, neither the doubts nor the doubters are likely to go away.
Friedman says the machines could have been reprogrammed through a secondary slot without breaking the seals. In any case, he contends, San Diego violated the federal requirements that the machines be stored safely.
Last week, the doubters held public meetings in Los Angeles and San Diego demanding hand recounts of the results. They're not likely to get them, but that will only reinforce the questions, not necessarily about Bilbray-Busby, but about the results elsewhere if the GOP retains control in Washington in November.
Bilbray-Busby didn't start the questions. They go back at least to the ugly battle for Florida in the presidential election of 2000 and in many respects much further in American history.
Stuffing ballot boxes is an ancient bipartisan tradition in American politics. Corpses voted long before women could.
But two new reports, one from Common Cause, the other from the nonpartisan Brennan Center in New York, reinforce the special doubts about the security and reliability of electronic voting systems. The most widely used systems, including Diebold's, said the Brennan report, "have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities, which pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state and local elections." Common Cause says 17 states, not including California, are at "high risk" for compromised election results.
The Brennan report cites California as one of the few states that have implemented some of the critical security measures that it recommends to prevent tampering. If that dampens the suspicions about the race in San Diego, it can only amplify fears about the reliability of electronic voting devices elsewhere. If California with its formal procedures can't cool the suspicions, what can?
Given laws recently passed by GOP-controlled legislatures in Ohio and Georgia that effectively discourage or block voters -- minorities especially -- likely to cast ballots for Democrats, the fears about rigged elections are not out of line.
In Ohio naturalized citizens have to provide naturalization papers; no proof is required of persons claiming to be born here. In Georgia, voters must show photo IDs, which poor people, many of whom have no driver's licenses, are much less likely to have.
The doubters about Bilbray-Busby are probably wrong; the threat to democracy is very real.
Peter Schrag can be reached at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779 or at email@example.com.