Here is a response to my Oct. 29 column on iVotronic voting machines and the incredible difficulty Frank Heindel had
in getting elections officials in Columbia and Charleston County to respond to his emails about them. It comes from Steve Skardon, Jr., executive director of the Palmetto Project, Inc. I am a little surprised at this letter and the source, but I told Steve he could have his say. So here it is.
You are my favorite journalist in SC., and you do a great public service with almost every one of your columns.
However, you pissed me off when you implied that the long-planned resignation of Marilyn Bowers, the Executive Director of the Charleston County Election Commission, is somehow linked to vague allegations by an amateur “citizen investigator”.
It was a cheap shot that maligned the stellar reputation of a very good and honest public servant. Mrs. Bowers is one of the most professional, most available public officials in the state. She took over a county election system whose operations were steeped in controversy and partisanship, and restored its competence and credibility.
Today the percentage of county residents who register and routinely vote is the highest it has ever been. That is surely a measure of public confidence in the election system, and a credit to Mrs. Bowers and the members of the election commission. Mrs. Bowers did not take an early retirement, as your column and your investigator suggested. She fully retired in 2008 after 30 years of service, but was brought back to guide the election commission through an important transitional period. She has never made any secret of her plans to resign and go back to the Upstate. As is customary for someone in her position, she met privately with her commissioners to inform them of her plans to leave her job after this election cycle before making it public the next day. If the commissioners had no confidence in her abilities, why would they have had her stay on just for this election? The implications in your column that there was something more to this are completely unfounded.
You apparently place great faith in Mr. Heindal’s skills as a “citizen investigator” of our election system based on his experience as a commodities trader. I am not sure I get the connection, but I can tell you that the inability of the County Election Commission or the State Election Commission to produce the kind of technical information he is asking for within the time frames he has decided are reasonable is hardly a scandal. Both agencies are operating on lower-than-baseline budgets and reduced staffs while they prepare for elections that may well produce record high turnouts. Statewide there are more than 300 elections every year, so contrary to Mr. Heindal’s suggestion that they are avoiding him, they may actually have more important things to do at the moment than the detailed research required by his requests. This stuff is not just sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting for someone to pop it the mail to anyone who writes in.
As far as I can tell, neither Mrs. Bowers nor the SEC is saying they do not plan to provide Mr. Heindal with everything they can legally provide him. In some instances, it appears that he is still asking questions that they have already answered.
I would also point out that many of Mr. Heindal’s claims of machine errors are based on his looking at highly technical readouts of the performance of individual machines. These were intended to be read by experts, and consequently are not particularly layperson friendly. When Mr. Heindal describes “unexplained events” recorded on these tapes … he means that he doesn’t understand them, not that they are not explainable by technicians who are trained to read them.
I am not saying that Mr. Heindal is wrong to pursue his concerns and to expect credible responses within a reasonable period. Just the opposite, more citizens should share his concerns about government accountability. I understand his frustration with having to wait for a full response to his Freedom of Information request, but the assumptions and sinister implications rampant in this story are not warranted.
If you are going to report this story in the way you are doing, you need to present a more balanced perspective. In fairness to everyone, I don’t think it is fair to either agency or your readers not to print out documents they apparently attached to their emails to Mr. Heindal, or summaries of his many phone calls with them.
I’d also encourage you check out more thoroughly the allegations he and anyone else makes about electronic voting before drawing conclusions. There are many different kinds of technologies out there. For example, in Mr. Heindal’s emails are several references to years-old news stories raising alarms about electronic voting machines. Most have nothing to do with the iVotronic machines. In some instances, they are not even referring to the same manufacturer we use in South Carolina. In other instances they are based on theory and conjecture of what might happen if, for example, a voter is left alone with a voting machine for several hours with screwdrivers and magnets. In still other instances, the elections got messed up — not by the voting machines — but by poorly trained precinct workers.
One complaint that I really don’t get is battery failure. Batteries fail. When that happens, you put a new one in. How is that and “unexplainable event.” Every vote is saved in one of the iVotronic machine’s four memory banks so there is no danger of losing any votes, nor is there any threat to the accurate recording of votes cast on it after it restarts.
The reality of life in the 21st century is that we have to depend on computer technology to make our world work. We trust it to manage our money, operate our businesses, teach our children, regulate our medicines, and protect our soldiers in combat, among other things. Every nuclear missile in our arsenal is ready to be aimed and launched … based on instructions dictated by a computer. All of these things involve proprietary source codes and we don’t object to the fact that those who design these systems maintain propriety source codes? Why is it that we think nothing of getting on an airplane whose autopilot security codes are proprietary, but become hysterical about sinister forces controlling our elections because the manufacturer won’t hand over the security codes to “citizen investigators.”?
I appreciate your reminding your readers that they have no reason to doubt that their votes are being counted and counted accurately. We have the best available election system currently on the market. Thousands of test votes are run on these machines in SC and around the country every year to insure their accuracy. We have terrific, professional election managers in our 46 counties who have spend years learning about these machines and making certain that they function as they should.
Look, nobody wants an election system that isn’t safe and reliable. When better technology comes on the market, we need to look at getting it. However, when the state purchased this system, not one, but two, independent expert panels evaluated the available technology and independently came to the same conclusion: The iVotronic was the best system on the market at the time and the most likely to produce accurate and security elections in the state for many years. Every county council and county election commission in the state also reviewed the system and each on its own voted to go with it.
The frustrating part of this is that none of the critics of the current system have another option that is better. Reverting to paper-based systems would be more expensive, more error-proned, more corruption-proned, and more likely to produce unreliable results than the iVotronic system we now use. They also don’t provide any more assurance to the voter that his or her vote will be counted.
You might remind your readers that the country will never know who was really elected President in 2000 because of the failures of paper-based voting systems in Florida. Even the human recounting of those ballots proved to be impossible. In that same election, the Palmetto Project’s post-election study revealed that 38,000 SC voters cast ballots for President that were officially counted as “blank”. Harvard University did a similar analysis and said the number was 44,000. In 2008, with the iVotronic machines, that problem went away.
BTW … I realize the curious election of Alvin Greene is going to surface every time there is ever a question about voting machines. By why should it? Is it so hard to imagine that in a race between two unknowns, the guy with the more famous name is won? According to a poll conducted just prior to the June primary, 78% of the Democratic primary voters didn’t know enough about Vic to even have an opinion of him. Among those who knew him, he had higher negatives than positives. I would also point out that Vic is a politician with twenty years of public service who was running in the most aggressively anti-incumbent year that anyone can remember.
Here’s an interesting fact about name recognition. Vic carried four counties … all four include among their citizens prominent families with the name “Rawl”. Three of them have current public figures with the name “Judge Rawl.” I would also mention — since the news media doesn’t — that when Vic’s campaign team questioned the accuracy of the voting machines, the SEC gave him and his technical advisors full access to them so they could test them. They conducted repeated tests on them for accuracy, and in every instance the tests showed the machines to be 100% reliable.
STEPHEN SKARDON JR., Executive Director
Palmetto Project Inc.
1031 Chuck Dawley Blvd. #5
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina 29464