John Gideon, R.I.P. -- and the "Gideon Initiative" for citizenship ownership of our elections

by Rob Richie // Published April 28, 2009
Voters Unite's John Gideon, the Indefatigable chronicler of problems with election administration, for nearly six years produced the Daily Voting News. Last night John died at age 62. Brad Friedman has a moving tribute to him on Bradblog. You can also see John's work by visiting the archive of Daily Voting News.

John shared one of my beliefs -- that citizens should control of our elections. As a tribute, perhaps those believing in that goal can join together in the "Gideon initiative."

As just one recent example of the problem with the status quo, John's April 22 report featured Washington D.C.'s ongoing legal struggle with Sequoia after the company's system failed during the city's primary elections last September. In January, I had testified before the D.C. city council, recommending that the city "legislate for government-owned and operated equipment and software, as well as giving the Board of Election Commissioners full discretion in purchasing the machines and the budget and authority to switch to improved technology as it becomes available. Oklahoma and New York State provide examples of states where elections are run without working through private vendors." John wrote back: "Thank you for this. We absolutely agree that the government should own and operate their own voting systems."

FairVote analyst David Segal has been working on a piece about the imperative for citizen-owned elections. It remains a work in progress, but I thought timely to share his thoughts.

From David Segal:

If we were to choose a single governmental function which ought to remain in the public realm -- neutrally rendered and readily scrutable -- it would surely be that upon which all other government functions, and a government's very legitimacy, are predicated: The administration of elections.

In a post-2000 America, there's likely a broader public understanding than ever before of the part that private contractors play in the development and operations of our voting equipment.  The popular reaction has been resounding:  If the roles of these contractors were put to a vote, they'd surely find themselves out of work.  Public distrust of elections is steadily on the rise, with some polls showing that a large majority lack basic confidence that their votes will be recorded as intended.

While potential for explicit malfeasance is a legitimate concern, and the most prominent impetus for such mistrust, there are many other ways in which these companies nefariously influence our elections.  It's time for voters to chase the vendors out of our polling places, and to seize control of elections, once-and-for-all.

Three companies dominate the election machine industry: Elections Systems and Software, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Premier (formerly Diebold.)  There might be further consolidation in the near future, as at least two fo these firms appear to be losing money.  The relatively low-profit nature of the field -- and the relative lack of competition -- have encouraged these companies to cut corners, and dismiss public concerns that aren't explicitly spelled out in contracts.

Yale law student Jennifer Nou in a remarkable article Privatizing Democracy: Promoting Election Integrity Through Procurement Contracts notes that the Help America Vote Act, with its new mandates and billions of dollars for new voting machinery, had the effect of compelling many jurisdictions to upgrade their equipment all at once, giving the contractors inflated bargaining power and stunting the industry's motivation to institute ongoing improvements to its technology.

With such limited competition, it's easy for these companies to shake money out of state governments via unscrupulous means: They can stop producing, and stop servicing, certain models artificially early, compelling states to buy new ones.  They have reason to meet just the bare-bones requirements of contracts and limit the plasticity of their hardware so that they can force upgrades on states that want to reform their voting systems -- making it difficult to implement innovative voting methods like instant runoff voting (IRV).  (The firms also may have reason to stymie IRV because more elections means more business.)

Vendors typically maintain tight control over their equipment and software: This means states need to pay them for service and programming help when there are problems, and contributes to our elections' lack of transparency.  For instance, when North Carolina's State Board of Elections in 2005 requested access to Diebold's software, following a state law requiring the Board to do so, the company simply refused.

When there is a clear problem with an election's administration, outsourcing allows for an additional layer of obfuscation and finger-pointing: The much-maligned contractors quickly go on the defensive -- instinctively denying culpability, and invoking property rights as they strive to prevent scrutiny of their software and records. Last fall, for instance, Sequoia tried to block the Washington, DC government from access to its records, even as its machines recorded thousands of false over-votes.

The election equipment companies have nested in a rather cozy nook, and will do all they can to maintain their standing.  In service of that end, like many corporations, they have discovered the benefits of the "revolving door," and close relationships with politicians.  A few stunning examples:

-Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel ran ES&S -- and failed to reveal that fact in mandatory disclosures -- as he won an upset bid for Senate in a state that overwhelmingly used ES&S equipment.

-California Secretary of State Bill Jones became a lobbyist and spokesperson for Sequoia in 2002 -- the same year he ran for Governor.  Nou notes that upon leaving office, elections officials in at least four other states have also recently gone to work as lobbyists for the voting machine industry.

-The CEO of Diebold famously wrote a fundraising letter for George W. Bush in 2003, asserting that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year" -- even as his company sought to win Ohio's multimillion dollar contract for new equipment from the Republican-run state government.  (Ohio, of course, was to be the locus of the greatest vote-tallying and administration controversy come Election Day, 2004.)

These sorts of relationships have understandably exacerbated the public's concerns about opportunity for premeditated malfeasance, and make it clear that the contractors are not disinterested in the outcomes of the elections they facilitate.

For all of the above reasons, it's time to develop an alternative.  States should start moving towards systems that are wholly owned and managed by the public.  Oklahoma is the vanguard of this nascent movement: In the 1990s it took ownership of its voting machines and source code.  The state updates its own code, and recently developed a statewide optical scanner system, without fussing with contractors. Other states can learn from its experience-- and from their own.