THE GOVERNMENT AND SOME OF ITS VENDORS CAN NOW ACCESS YOUR SECRET BALLOT
Fair Use Statement
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Source: Black Box Voting
It's true: Two voting products are designed to be used together. When
combined, these two products do away with the secret ballot. And this is
already being used.
Because this secretive process is split between two products, the sales
pitch on each product truthfully claims that privacy remains in place.
What they DON'T MENTION is that when the products are used together,
THE 2 PRODUCTS THAT COMBINE TO STRIP AWAY VOTE PRIVACY ARE:
1. Ballot-marked vote tracker systems (VoteHere and, from reports we have
received, Populex) 2. Image-retaining vote counters (Diebold, Hart
Once the bar code containing embedded voter information is on the ballot,
the image captured by the vote counter creates a computer file with both
votes and voter-tied information.
Persons inside government are in the best position to abuse this feature.
In fact, government security experts already have ties to the
Current US Secretary of Defense and former CIA head Robert Gates has been
on the advisory board of VoteHere. Former US Secretary of Defense Frank
Carlucci, also a former deputy director of the CIA and a long-time
Chairman of the Board at the Carlyle Group is on the advisory board for
Populex. Surely, these two men know the implications of tracking votes.
The second biggest expenditure for the CIA during the 1980s was
influencing foreign elections; as a Director of and Deputy Director of the
CIA, surely they are aware of the benefits an unscrupulous individual
could gain from producing giant vote databases that tie back to voters.
HERE’S HOW THESE TWO SYSTEMS STEAL YOUR POLITICAL PRIVACY
Step 1: Vote tracking system puts bar code on ballot which embeds a
connector to your voter registration system ID. Sales pitch: "This allows
voters to find out if their vote went through the system."
Step 2: Ballot counting device automatically takes digital photo of each
ballot. These images are stored on the computer in ballot image
Here is a copy of a Diebold high speed central count ballot image
directory (zip file; does not contain vote tracker bar codes):
With the vote tracking system, the digital image directories contain BOTH
the bar code with your ID embedded AND the votes you cast.
More later on how the ballot tracking systems work, and why their use is
about to increase. First, let's explore the dangers of allowing our vote
secrecy to be stripped away by government insiders, private vendors, and
proprietary trade secrets.
IS VOTER PRIVACY REALLY NECESSARY?
Some citizens think we should do away with the secret ballot. That's a
radical idea, and as you'll see below, one that carries the risk of
destabilizing the nation. But secret government-owned voter+votes
databases are no one's cup of tea, unless you wish to live in a carceral
state, which seeks to know everything about its inhabitants while hiding
information about itself. Even the most radical reformers don't want this
evolutionary step towards a police state.
THE USE OF COMPUTERIZED DATABASES INCREASES THE RISK
America didn't always have a secret ballot. Voter privacy laws came about
after a frenzy of corruption -- wholesale vote-buying and selling as
showcased with the Tammany Hall scandal.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tammany_Hall - See "Tweed Machine"
That was bad, but now it can be much worse: Computers and the ability to
manipulate massive databases put political privacy at significantly
greater risk. The data-crunching operations provided by companies like
Choicepoint have the capability to provide unprecedented power to
databases containing personal information. Choicepoint's biggest client is
the US government, and Choicepoint's lobbyist is John Ashcroft.
Today, Black Box Voting asked Choicepoint this question:
"It's indisputable that his [Ashcroft's] firm is lobbying for you, so what
is Choicepoint saying he is and isn't doing? "
"Ashcroft and his firm are not lobbying any member of Congress on our
behalf nor are we using them to affect any pending or possible legislation
in Congress or any state legislature. We are using his firm solely to
develop business leads. Both statements have been true since we began a
relationship with the Ashcroft Group and remain true today. This is a
business development relationship."
That is not particularly informative, and since the US Congress has
exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act, citizens can't even
find out what this is all about.
Maybe Choicepoint would never exploit the new vote+voter databases, but
instead the files would be slipped to the programmers for Voter Vault, the
brawny Republican political database. One of Voter Vault's key
contractors, Bruce Boram, has been chastised repeatedly for low-ball
political tricks, and is one of the last people Democratic voters would
want to view how they voted.
Perhaps it would be some other data mining company, or even some squirrely
little custom program on the private laptop of a future Nixonian
president. The point is, enabling vote data to be secretly tied to voters
and retained in computer directories and/or databases is dangerous.
WHAT CAN GOVERNMENT AND ITS PRIVATE VENDORS DO WITH KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR
How long do you think it would take for someone to get the bright idea to
check the actual private voting patterns of all political appointees? How
about checking on the private votes of military officers? Civil servants?
What about an elected official grabbing a sneak a peek at which of his
constituents actually voted for him? Redistricting tactics?
Knowing who votes for whom puts winners and losers in unique positions to
extract revenge on each other. Those who vote the "wrong" way may be
treated unfairly by judges (whether elected or appointed by elected
individuals), prosecutors or law enforcement officials who happen to learn
how they voted.
HOW DANGEROUS COULD IT GET?
Given time, exploits multiply. In the late 1800s when corporations seized
the "right" to corporate personhood, no one dreamed they would end up
shoveling hundreds of millions into political campaigns to create
If the vote-tracking programs continue, sooner or later your private votes
will be harvested, whether or not anyone is exploiting this opportunity at
"As much as it extols political freedoms and governmental openness, the
United States government has a long and dark history of rounding up
troublemakers, suppressing dissent, criminalizing expression, sowing
suspicion, and delaying justice." This is a quote from No Greater Threat
by C. William Michaels, a book about the rise of the national security
ROUNDING UP CITIZENS FOR THEIR POLITICAL OPINIONS
It's been done before. In 1950, Congress passed the Internal Security Act,
establishing a new federal agency called the "Subversive Activities
Control Board." The act was designed to identify and suppress supposedly
subversive individuals and organizations.
"The chief weapon of the sea pirates was their capacity to astonish. No
one could believe, until it was much too late, just how heartless and
greedy they were."-- Kurt Vonnegut*
With the re-authorization of the Patriot Act, very troubling powers exist
under current law, with obvious implications for what can happen now that
the government can obtain information about how you voted:
According to the ACLU, "Section 215 (known as the 'library records'
provision, but which actually applies to 'any tangible thing') does not
require any individualized suspicion to get a court order for any record
That doesn't mean it's constitutional. And the use of certain kinds of
data-mining programs by certain departments is now supposed to require
reports to Congress, though it's unclear to any of us whether anyone is
following the rules, or even how we would find out if they weren't.
"The information sharing permitted by Title II of the Patriot Act is quite
wide ranging. Definitions are broadly defined, and the investigation could
involve almost anything. No court order is needed for information sharing.
The Act does not specify a limit to the use made of this information by
other government officials. The Act does not limit information sharing to
more than one official from more than one agency. Information can be
"shared" by one to many. There is no limitation of the type of "official"
use to be made of shared information. This opens the door to extensive and
secretive sharing …" (1)
MORE ABOUT HOW VOTE TRACKING REMOVES POLITICAL PRIVACY
Is this combination vote-tracking/digital imaging system already being
Yes. In San Juan County, Washington the VoteHere ballot tracking system is
being used with Hart Intercivic vote-counting scanners (capture digital
images of the ballots). Bar codes on the ballot - VoteHere ballot tracker:
Citizens to the rescue:
Tim White and Alan Rosato, two extraordinary San Juan County citizens,
along with the help of the Green Party of San Juan County, have filed a
lawsuit contending that the use of the ballot tracking program is illegal.
You will find much more information here:
BUT CAN THESE BALLOT IMAGES BE EFFICIENTLY CONVERTED TO DATABASE FORMATS?
Yes. The ballot images are stored in directories, which can then be run
through a program like Hursti's Votoscope to convert the pictures into
Black Box Voting obtained the ballot image files from the Diebold high
speed scanner, another voting machine that produces ballot images. (As you
may recall, we used to think this was a cool feature.)
In a project sponsored by Black Box Voting, Finnish computer programmer
Harri Hursti created a working version of the "Votoscope", which he proved
can quickly process hundreds of thousands of ballot images, converting
them to a database.
Only one step remains: To add the bar code conversion feature into the
data program. Both the vendor and various government entities are in a
position to do this. Not only that, but under the mushy provisions of the
Patriot Act, it's probably legal for certain divisions of the government
to do this, even if it is not for a "security" reason.
Vendors will tell you that the bar code containing your identifier is
encrypted. Who cares? The only question that remains is what subset of
individuals have the key!
CURRENT LEGISLATION IN THE US CONGRESS WILL PUT MANY MORE LOCATIONS AT
1. The Holt Bill (HR 811) attempts to create permanent voting system
authority for White House appointees. This unwise move will be the subject
of another article, but the application to ballot tracking is simply this:
White House appointees, under the Holt Bill, get regulatory power over the
mechanics of voting systems. At whatever time, a small handful of
politically chosen individuals can decide for American voters, "Hey, this
ballot tracking concept is very good, let's require it for everybody."
It is not inaccurate to characterize the proposed permanent funding for
White House appointee-led regulatory power over election systems as "a
clear and present danger" which, if carried out, will destabilize our
2. Bills have been submitted both in the U.S. Congress and in many states
to increase mail-in voting, which already openly uses ballot-marked vote
tracking. Some of the bills even try to require ballot tracking, perhaps
not realizing that ballot-tracking systems can optionally put a voter-tied
code on both the mail-in envelope and the ballot itself.
A ballot vote-tracking system was recently used by the United Aerospace
and Machinists union in a union election. Who knows how many other places
this is being used.
And it sounds so warm and fuzzy: "You get to check that your vote was
Unfortunately, so can others, and they can do a whole lot more than that.
(1) C. William Michaels, in a book on the rise of the national security
state, No Greater Threat
* Thanks to the many voting rights advocates who have helped so very much
in developing effective communications frames for elections issues – Pokey
Anderson, whose “Sea Pirates” quote I borrowed, and the many others who
have been contributing such pithy phrases as “The United States of
Amnesia” and others via working groups and listservs.
# # # # #
The work Black Box Voting is doing is supported solely by citizen
donations. To support our work:
Or, mail to:
Black Box Voting
330 SW 43rd St Suite K
Renton WA 98055
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