Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Elections Expert Sal Magallanez Speaks at Activist-San Diego
Warns About How Easy It Is to Rig a Computer-Counted Election
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
While the Right-wing media fuss about the voter-registration campaign of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the forged registrations paid ACORN street employees allegedly turned in for Mickey Mouse and various football stars, progressives remain concerned about the real threat to election integrity: the use of computer voting systems running proprietary software and the ease with which they can be “hacked” to alter the outcome of an election. Activist San Diego featured this issue at their regular monthly meeting Monday, October 13 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, presenting the film Hacking Democracy — a 2006 HBO documentary featuring Bev Harris and her fellow activists in the Black Box Voting group — and live speaker Sal Magallanez, a local election consultant for the Democratic Party.
Magallanez has quite a résumé on elections-related issues, having worked with or consulted for national organizations like Save Our Vote, Verified Voting Foundation and Help America Audit. He also joked that he spent 2 1/2 years in Berlin with the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe — “I call those my spy years,” he said — but his current affiliation is with the Election Integrity Institute, a local group that monitors San Diego elections and meets once a month with San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler. After a movie particularly exposing the flaws of Diebold Elections Systems hardware and software, Magallanez opened his presentation with an exposé of the connections Seiler and her chief deputy, Michael Vu, have with Diebold and the so-called “successor company” they spun off their elections division to in 2007, Premier Election Solutions.
“Deborah Seiler, our registrar of voters, was previously the salesperson who sold these machines on behalf of Diebold,” Magallanez explained. “Michael Vu, who was the registrar in Cuyahoga County, Ohio in 2004” — where, many progressives believe and the film Hacking Democracy strongly suggests, John Kerry was done out of the presidency by faulty and misallocated Diebold voting machines — “decided that no votes would be counted at individual precincts.” The reason that’s important, according to Magallanez, is that by eliminating the vote counts at individual precincts, Seiler and Vu deprived the system of an important check on the accuracy of the final count from the Registrar of Voters’ central computer.
Instead, he said, “you voted, and the only thing they reconciled at the precinct level was how many ballots they issued versus how many came back. They brought all the ballots to the Registrar of Voters and ran them on their scanners, recording the votes on memory cards which they took into a computer room where we are not allowed to enter. Then they announced what the votes were by precincts. We demand that the ballots be counted at the precincts first. That doesn’t happen.”
Magallanez listed other abuses in San Diego County under both Seiler and her predecessors, which he’s seen as an official observer for the Democratic Party. In 1996, he said, he saw the computer running GEMS— the proprietary software program at the heart of Diebold’s (now Premier’s) vote tabulation system — crash six times in half an hour. “The person in charge told everyone to take a lunch break while he fixed the computer,” Magallanez recalled. Later they found out that the reason the computer had crashed was that GEMS was simply overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of data coming in at once as the ballots were counted and the results sent from precincts to the GEMS computer.
Last February, he said, an even more serious potential breach of vote security occurred. The boxes containing the actual ballots are supposed to be sealed in at least three prominent places — not to keep anyone from breaking into the ballot boxes but at least to make it obvious if someone has tried. “In February 2008 I saw the ballot boxes coming in unsealed, and there were no signatures on them to tell which people had handled the boxes,” Magallanez explained. “There are 1,650 precincts in San Diego County and during the early returns, in which about 100 precincts came in, 24 boxes came in without signatures, seals or both. There’s no procedure to handle a box without a seal any differently from a box with a seal. We don’t know where the ballots inside those boxes came from.”
Another abuse Magallanez reported is going on in San Diego County is “voter purging” or “caging.” “Caging,” Magallanez explained, is illegal if done by political parties but legal if done by elections officials. It means mailing out cards to the addresses of registered voters, with instructions to send them back either to confirm their registrations or to apply for vote-by-mail ballots. The trick behind it is that the cards are marked “Do Not Forward” — so if any of the cards are returned by the post office for any reason, the registrar assumes that the person no longer lives at that address and therefore can legally be dropped from the voter rolls.
“We’ve already had three rounds of voter purging,” Magallanez said. “They did a purge in September 2007 and another one in February 2008, and in February 2008 there were 15,000 fewer voters for the Democratic Party even though we’d been doing a major registration drive. They deleted 100,000 names before the February primary and another 35,000 before June. Postcards have just gone out, so expect to have another 30,000 people thrown off the rolls before November.”
According to Magallanez, many of the victims of caging and purging are college students, whose votes the Democrats are trying to protect. “The Registrar of Voters is setting it up so students who live in dorms have to re-register if they’re in a different dorm room this semester from last,” he explained. Another problem with student voters is that many are still registered in their parents’ home cities or counties rather than in San Diego. Magellanes’ recommendation to them is to get a vote-by-mail ballot from their home city or county, and to make sure they mail it before October 30 to ensure that it gets back by election day — as it must in order for it to count.
Magallanez criticized the San Diego County Registrar of Voters for encouraging students to vote on campus with so-called “provisional ballots.” Provisional ballots, a creation of the “Help America Vote Act” passed early in the Bush II administration after the fiasco of Florida, 2000, are given to people whose registrations are in question on the day of the election. People can vote these ballots and have them set aside to be counted if they meet the registration requirements after all — but Magellanez warned that 13 percent of all provisional ballots will never be counted. In Ohio in 2004, he explained, “180,000 provisional ballots were not counted. They said it didn’t matter whether they counted them or not because John Kerry still wouldn’t have won the state.”
The San Diego County Registrar of Voters is making some minor improvements in security for this November’s election, Magellanez said. “We’ve been told the poll workers will not be able to take the voting machines home overnight the day before the election,” he explained. “They’re locked in a security cabinet, but the ‘lock’ is just a piece of plastic. They’re putting chemical seals at all the most sensitive points that will void the machines if they are touched.” But Magellanez remains suspicious of the overall accuracy and reliability of the machines, as well as whether or not they’re part of a network.
The last point is important because registrars and other elections officials who use computerized systems say they can’t be hacked into because they’re not connected to the Internet. But, Magellanez said, “I asked all the elections officials what each cable at the end of the machine is connected to, and they wouldn’t explain where one cable — a USB cable — went.” What’s more, he added, “in 2004 we found in the logs of the GEMS computer the name ‘Everett’ and a phone number. Everett, Washington is the location of the headquarters of Microsoft. We said, ‘You guys said this wasn’t on a network, and this looks like a modem calling Microsoft.’ Deborah Seiler said, ‘That’s just the phone number of a guy named Everett who works in this office.’”
Another security issue Magellanez has raised with San Diego County’s elections office is the location of the “spoiled” check on the absentee ballot. Right now there’s a check box on the outside of the envelope that you can mark if you spoiled your ballot and want another one so you can fill it out correctly so you can still vote. Magellanez wants that box on the inside so that elections officials can’t just check the “spoiled” box themselves and have an excuse not to count ballots from a part of the county not likely to be for their favored candidates.
Former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow attended the meeting and said he’d lost a close election because the Registrar of Voters certified the result — i.e., declared it official — before the recount was finished. “That shifted the burden of proof on me to prove they were wroing, which would have been a $50,000-$80,000 lawsuit,” he said. “So I abandoned it, and then they sued me for the $28,000 they spent on the recount.” He won the suit but didn’t win the election, even though the recount showed that he should have. Morrow, who ran for Mayor of San Diego in the primary earlier this year, said that in that election “the Registrar of Voters sat on the same numbers most of the evening” and announced the winners in the city election when only one-third of the precincts in San Diego’s city limits had been counted.
Magellanez said that things like that happen because “the Registrar of Voters says their job is to please the media. The law says they have to certify the election within 28 days, but they say they need to certify the result the very next day for the convenience of the media. It’s our vote, not the media’s, and it’s our rights they should be protecting.” He closed by saying his presentation “was not designed to discourage people or make them feel demoralized,” and suggested that voters concerned about their registration status order ballots by mail, fill them out before the October 20 registration deadline and turn them in personally to the Registrar of Voters’ office, “so if there’s a problem with your registration, you find out about it before you can’t re-register.”