Senior National Editor
About a year from now, Americans will cast votes for the candidates of their choice.
Or at least they will think that’s what they’ve done, having little awareness of concerns about the security of electronic voting machines, a “national security issue” in the view of scientists who easily hacked a widely-used device.
Others, even before they get the chance to vote, will discover that the rules for registering and voting itself have changed in their state; changes so controversial that the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School recently proclaimed that a “War on Voting Rages Nationwide.”
There is debate over the extent of voter fraud, arguments about whether there is a greater problem with accurately registering people than in people actually voting who should not. Nonetheless, 13 states last year amended their voting rules and another two dozen are at various stages of doing likewise. Chief among the changes are photo identification requirements, reduced opportunities to vote early and restrictions on how and when voter registration is conducted.
The Brennan Center report issued in October contended: “State governments across the country enacted an array of new laws making it harder to register or to vote. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular innovation used by millions of Americans. Two states reversed earlier reforms and once again disenfranchised millions who have past criminal convictions but who are now taxpaying members of the community. Still others made it much more difficult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequisite for voting. These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election.”
The Brennan Center report warned that these laws “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.”
Check out this interactive map and state-by-state guide on voter identification requirements from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Supporters the laws say that if photo identification is required to clear security at the nation’s airports, asking for the same at the polling place is a reasonable request. The Brennan Center counters that 11 percent of Americans of voting age (more than 21 million people) may lack the types of government-issued identification with a photograph considered valid by particular states, while the rates for older Americans (18 percent) and African-Americans (25 percent) are even higher.
“What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century,” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C., told Rolling Stone magazine. Browne-Dianis expanded on the issue in a piece this week for CNN.Com.
Opponents suggest that these measures are meant to deter constituencies that supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and could be part of his 2012 re-election campaign base.
“The impact of the new laws is especially important in the South, where the region's rapidly changing demographics appear to be favoring Democrats, but where voter restrictions will likely benefit Republicans,” wrote Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has announced plans for demonstrations nationally on Dec. 10, with more planned in the South later.
Advocating tightened restrictions are conservatives such as Hans A. von Spakovsky, who served as a legal counsel in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush. When Democrats objected to his nomination to the Federal Election Commission, President Bush made him a recess appointee. Today von Spakovsky is Senior Legal Fellow in the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. He has been critical of previous reports issued by the Brennan Center.
Referring to photo identification requirements and other measures, von Spakovsky told The New York Times, “The left always says that people who are in favor of this claim there is massive fraud. No, I don’t say that. I don’t think anybody else says that there is massive fraud in American elections. But there are enough proven cases in the past, throughout our history and recently, that show that you’ve got to take basic steps to prevent people from taking advantage of an election if they want to. Particularly close elections.”
On the Heritage Foundation website in July von Spakovsky laid out the arguments for photo identification requirements. “Many state legislatures are considering whether to improve election integrity by requiring voters to produce a photograph identification card (voter ID) when they vote at their polling places on Election Day. . . Those states understand that the United States has an unfortunate history of voter fraud and that requiring individuals to authenticate their identity at the polls is a fundamental and necessary component of ensuring the integrity of the election process. Every individual who is eligible to vote should have the opportunity to do so. It is equally important, however, that the votes of eligible voters are not stolen or diluted by a fraudulent or bogus vote cast by an ineligible or imaginary voter. The evidence from academic studies and actual turnout in elections is also overwhelming that—contrary to the shrill claims of opponents—voter ID does not depress the turnout of voters, including minority, poor, and elderly voters.”
von Spakovsky cited the 2005 report by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, which said, “The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters. Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. Voting is equally important."
Amid plans for Congressional hearings and calls by Democrats for the Justice Department to investigate state voting laws, there remains skepticism about both the extent of the problem and the reach of the remedies. "There's not a great deal of evidence of voter fraud" through impersonation, John Samples, the director of the Center for Representative Government at Cato Institute, a libertarian group, told McClatchey Newspapers. And the new laws? "There's not much evidence that requiring voter IDs will change things or deter people from voting," Samples said. "When people are sufficiently mobilized to vote, they turn out."
Then there is the issue of the voting machines themselves.
Experts on voting system recently gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a meeting titled “Election Integrity: Past, Present, and Future.” Pamela Smith, president of VerifiedVoting.Org, ticked off two issues of concern to her group: the use of Internet voting systems that cannot be audited and the inability of Direct Recording Electronic voting machines to recount ballots in a close election. Smith favors optical scanning of paper ballots, which produce a paper trail that can be checked later and are required in 38 states.
“Although major machine-based errors are rare, they do occur,” Charles Stewart III, Professor of Political Science and MIT’s voting technology project director, said. “When they occur, it undermines the integrity of elections. In political times like today, the last thing we need is something that inaccurately calls into question the integrity of elections.”
Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, part of the federal Energy Department, have done just that, calling into question the integrity of Direct Recording Electronic voting machines used by as many as 30 percent of voters – which they say can be hacked with parts costing just $10.50 and an 8th grade science education (not that an 8th grader would try such a thing).
Roger Johnston led the lab’s Vulnerability Assessment Team, which warned that voting results could be changedwithout leaving a trace of manipulation behind. “We believe these man-in-the-middle attacks are potentially possible on a wide variety of electronic voting machines. We think can do similar things on pretty much every electronic voting machine,” Johnson said. And they did it without having the voting machine’s source code. The same group also demonstrated a similar attack on a voting system made by another company a couple of years ago. “This is anational security issue,” Johnston told the online magazine Salon, in a piece written by Brad Friedman, whose BradBlog.Com frequently criticizes voting machine security. “It should really be handled by the Department of Homeland Security.”