Friday, October 13, 2006

No on Question 4: the Linda Lamone Lifetime Appointment Act

I plan to focus my posts through November 7th on Maryland's Question 4 referendum. Misleadingly named a "Voter Bill of Rights" by its authors, the measure is really more of a "Board of Elections Bill of Rights." As such, Question 4 threatens to set in stone both the intransigent leadership and the misguided approach to voting technology that brought us the Great Maryland Election Meltdown in the September primary election.

Maryland's "Question 4" election law referendum language is summarized at the State of Maryland's Board of Elections web site. Of course no link to the actual language is provided there, that would have been way too transparent for the Board of Elections. So I've reproduced the summary below, emphasizing parts I think are particularly bad ideas, and adding the link to the actual language that Linda Lamone's agency couldn't be bothered to provide:
Question 4 - Statewide Referendum

Election Law Revisions

Special Note: Provisions of this legislation would have amended prior legislation providing an early voting option to voters in primary and general elections. The early voting provisions of this legislation have been declared unconstitutional by court action; the remaining provisions of House Bill 1368 that are subject to this referendum are summarized below.

Requires power and duties assigned to the State Board of Elections to be exercised in accordance with an affirmative vote by a supermajority of the members of the State Board; requires local boards of elections to establish new precincts to serve certain higher educational institutions; requires local boards to adopt regulations concerning voter registration and to allow public notice and comment concerning proposed changed in precinct boundaries; requires local boards of elections to make public reports concerning deletion of individuals from the voter registry and concerning the number of voter registration applications received; authorizes the State Elections administrator to take specified actions to ensure compliance with State elections laws by local election boards and personnel, requires that certain provisions of this legislation apply only to certain jurisdictions and will remain effective until June 30, 2008; requires all polling places to be equipped with computers containing a record of all registered voters in the county.

(Amending Election Law 2-102, 2-103, 2-202, 2-202.1, 2-206, 2-301, 2-303, 3-501, 10-302)

Now not all of this measure is bad on its face; public notification and comment on precinct boundaries seem like good things, as does more transparency about voter registration lists and why people are stricken from those lists. But the HB 1368 "Voter Bill of Rights" title is really disingenuous, given the supermajority item -- which I hereby christen the "Linda Lamone Lifetime Appointment Clause."

From the text of HB 1368 (Acrobat .PDF document; line numbers removed):
(a) There is a State Administrator of Elections.
(b) The State Administrator shall:
(1) be appointed by the State Board, with the advice and consent of the Senate of Maryland, and serve at the pleasure of the State Board; [...]

(7) provided the State Board is fully constituted with five duly confirmed
members, be subject to removal by the affirmative vote of four duly confirmed members of the State Board for incompetence, misconduct, or other good cause except that:
(i) prior to removal, the State Board shall set forth written charges stating the grounds for dismissal and afford the State Administrator notice and an ample opportunity to be heard; and

(ii) subsequent to a valid vote for removal by at least four duly confirmed members of the State Board, the State Administrator is authorized to continue to serve until a successor is appointed and confirmed by the Senate of Maryland;

(8) be the chief State election official.
I'll admit, there was a time when I might have applauded anything that clouded Governor Ehrlich's day. But Ms. Lamone's deceptions and incompetence on behalf of her electronic voting project and her allies at Diebold have shown me the error of my ways.

Johns Hopkins computer science professor and electronic voting expert Aviel Rubin has tangled with Ms. Lamone on a number of occasions. Like most sensible critics of electronic voting systems, Rubin believes it's imperative that voters and election officials have a means of checking that the votes recorded electronically match up with permanent independent records of those votes -- paper records to be seen by the voter and stored by election officials to allow audits of electronic vote tallies. In his book Brave New Ballot he describes an Annapolis hearing and its aftermath, in which the leader of an SAIC electronic voting risk assessment study corroborated Rubin's skepticism about Maryland's voting systems:
Schugar said that my points were valid, and he agreed that it was easy to hide malicious code in software. ... the chances of someone hiding code without being detected were 99.9 percent. [...]

[After the hearing] I agreed to step aside for a one-on-one taped conversation with Fraser Smith from Baltimore's NPR affiliate, and his first question made my jaw drop. "Linda Lamone just stated on the record that by questioning the security of the voting machines, you are undermining democracy. How do you respond to that?"

I wanted to answer that it was one of the dumbest statements I had ever heard but only managed to stammer out, "She actually said that?"
As Rubin adds: was a government official -- one in charge of voting no less -- saying that if I were a real patriot, I'd keep my mouth shut. She seemed to me to be acting more like an old Soviet-bloc bureaucrat than like a person entrusted with safeguarding our free elections.
There are plenty more anecdotes like that one: Lamone pretending at a Congressional hearing that a "paper trail" would be a yards-long register ribbon; her agency misquoting Rubin to a business journal; pressuring a university to make a professor take down a critique of a misleading pamphlet the Board of Elections produced (unsuccessfully, but still). She and her agency have approached the questions about electronic voting as if they're a nuisance to be solved with P.R., propaganda, and political pressure, not ones to be resolved seriously and with the expert help they so clearly need.

Someone like Ms. Lamone should be removeable by a simple majority of the board, and the deputy administrator should thereupon immediately assume the chief administrator's duties (and not just upon her death or resignation, as the referendum statute also provides). Lamone shouldn't get to linger on after her removal by the board until Mike Miller and his allies get around to finding a replacement for her.


Next time -- No on Question 4: the Election Technology Boondoggle Act.

PS: thanks to the proprietor of this blog (Mr. "OnBackground") for allowing me to join Free State Politics; I hope I'll make some useful contributions. I do most of my online writing at my newsrack blog, and hope you'll check by there, too, from time to time. This post is based on a "No On 4" post I wrote in late September.

EDIT, 10/17: next post named as above instead of "Technology Fetish Act"
UPDATE, 11/5: See also the two other "No on Question 4" posts, calling it the Election Technology Boondoggle Act and the Election Central Command and Control Act.


Blogger Stephanie Dray said...

This is fantastic. I hope we can get some coverage of this issue, and some letters to the editor.

10/14/2006 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

Thanks, Stephanie. I mainly just hope we can get some discussion of it!

10/17/2006 02:30:00 AM  
Blogger George Bishop said...

I don't understand the paranoia about computer-based voting. First, most of the problems in the September primary were due to human error. Second, while security could no doubt be improved, these voting devices are standalone machines. They are not networked together, nor do they talk to a server. Tampering with these machines individually could hardly affect the results of an election.

And for all the hue and cry about the lack of a paper trail, I'd remind these folks that for the 70 years or so that we used those big mechanical voting machines, there was no paper trail then, either. In some recent elections in Baltimore County, we had computer-readable mark sense (paper) forms, but personally, I didn't like leaving this form behind! After all, it's supposed to be a secret ballot!

The computers are very easy to use and more reliable. I prefer their accuracy to those old machines which used cams, springs and ratchets to increment their mechanical counters, which could malfunction with no means of data recovery.

11/04/2006 05:41:00 PM  
Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

The computers are ... more reliable.

Two words: prove it. You can't. That's what the "hue and cry" and "paranoia" are about, no more, no less. Why allow that kind of a voting system when you could have one allowing audits and recounts of hardcopy records? (No one would be able to trace your vote to you either way.)

You say the machines are standalone, and they should be, but (1) they are subject to centralized programming and (2) they can be cross-infected by a malicious virus in a voting access cards used in a precinct, as a recent Princeton study has shown. In the past, the most a malicious election worker could do was screw up a machine; now you can "tilt" a whole system, and you have a corporate interest in not revealing important "details" of how the voting technology works.

I agree that the 9/12 snafus were human error -- but I think that the election system the BOE has created, with its NASA-like pre-election checklists and its utter lack of transparency invites that kind of human error.

11/06/2006 10:05:00 AM  

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