Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004

Talking Point

Ukraine election not so foreign; can we learn from it?

By Matt Ruskin

It does not come as a surprise that the mainstream media, which has failed to adequately cover the systemic problems and malfeasance that occurred in our own elections, has avoided drawing a connection to this month’s contested presidential election in Ukraine. In addition to the troubling similarities, there is an even more astonishing difference — the response of the people.

The International Election Observation Mission released a statement of preliminary findings about Ukraine’s presidential election, reporting that “the process was characterized by significant shortcomings.”

This is Ukraine’s fourth presidential election since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. The level of national collusion between the incumbent candidate and the Central Election Commission greatly exceeds anything that we have experienced in our elections, with the possible exception of the U.S. Supreme Court’s involvement in 2000. Although there are insurmountable differences between the recent Ukraine election and our own, the comparison raises worthwhile questions about the condition of our democracy.

In order to compare Ukraine and the United States, it is important to take into account contemporary American presidential elections as defined by a narrowly divided electoral map. It is necessary to focus our attention to the handful of “battleground” states that determined the outcome of our recent elections. In a greatly reduced playing field without national election standards there is no need for uniform fraud or widespread manipulation to steal an election.

Among the shortcomings in Ukraine deemed most significant by the I.E.O.M. were incidents that included the use of state resources for partisan purposes, large numbers of errors and/or omissions in voter lists and a lack of transparency in vote tabulation.

In Florida we have seen blatant abuses of state power and resources for partisan purposes, which have been perpetrated without consequence. Both in the 2000 and 2004 elections, President Bush benefited from his brother Governor Jeb Bush’s influence over the Florida Department of State.

In 2000, Kathleen Harris, the Florida secretary of state and co-chairperson of the regional Bush campaign, ordered a broad and sweeping purge list that her own data gathering company, Database Technologies, warned was riddled with inaccuracies, resulting in the wrongful disenfranchisement of thousands of black, traditionally Democratic, voters.

Harris’s successor, Secretary of State Glena Hood, did the same thing in 2004, but made an attempt to keep the voter purge list private. After a judge ordered the list to be made public, it was revealed that the Florida Department of State had purged nearly three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. The list identified more than 20,000 black voters, while naming only 61, traditionally Republican, Hispanic voters.

In Nevada and Oregon, employees at a Republican-affiliated organization destroyed Democratic registration forms. The organization, Voter Outreach for America, was hired to register voters by the Republican National Committee through a firm run by Nathan Sproul, the former head of the Republican Party in Arizona.

When the Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in Nevada requesting a late registration period for voters whose forms may have been destroyed, District Judge Valerie Adair denied the request, stating that opening voter register after the deadline would be “unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair.”

Although we have experienced a wide range of incidents of malfeasance, the most significant new threat to our democracy is the onset of electronic voting systems. These systems lack the necessary transparency and verifiable paper trail to ensure valid elections.

The electronic voting industry is entirely privatized in the United States. The codes written by these companies for casting and tabulating electronic votes are not subject to public scrutiny.

In 2002, the source code for Diebold’s widely used AccuVote-TS electronic voting system was discovered on the Internet. Diebold is the leading manufacturer of electronic voting machines in the U.S., with voting systems used in 37 states. Aviel Rubin and a team at the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University analyzed the widely used software.

In their paper, “Analysis of an Electronic Voting System,” the team reports that “this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts. We identify several problems including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats and poor software development processes. We show that voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software.”

They conclude that this “voting system is unsuitable for use in a general election… the best solutions are voting systems having a ‘voter-verifiable audit trail.’”

They suggest that “an open process would result in a more careful development, as more scientists, software engineers, political activists and others who value their democracy would be paying attention to the quality of the software that is used for their elections.”

It is worth examining why House Majority leader Tom DeLay blocked Representative Rush Holt’s bill requiring paper trails for electronic voting machines in the 2004 election. The initial argument was that the technology did not yet exist, but with models all around us, such as the millions of lottery tickets that are purchased every week, this argument was of little merit. And when companies such as Diebold created machines with paper trails, similar to the ATM machines they manufacture, the House majority leader refused to bring the bill out of committee for a vote on the floor. Why would a party leader prevent such a measure?

Professor Michael Hout of the University of California, Berkeley, has published a study examining the discrepancy in increased support for President Bush from 2000 to 2004 in Florida counties that used electronic voting machines and counties that used paper ballots.

His findings show that, on average, President Bush gained double the number of votes in counties that used electronic voting machines. The counties with the largest gains for the president were the unlikely, heavily Democratic, counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

Although there is no hard evidence of malfeasance, Professor Hout argues that, “For the sake of all future elections someone must investigate these results.”

The magnitude of fraud in Ukraine’s election may overshadow the problems that we have experienced in our own recent elections, but the threat is essentially the same — the lack of an efficient and transparent system with the necessary checks and balances to ensure the integrity of our vote.

So why have we responded so differently than the Ukrainian people?

On Nov. 17, 2000, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz predicted on “Court TV,” “If Bush is declared president by his campaign co-chair [Kathleen Harris], despite the fact that he has received fewer votes in Florida and fewer votes nationally this will not be a legitimate presidency. The American public will not allow the wool to be pulled over its eyes by these kinds of transparent machinations.”

Are we that much more apathetic than the Ukrainian people, or did we believe that it didn’t really matter who was elected president as long as it was settled quickly and peacefully?

The enormous public response in Ukraine, fueled by highly organized student organizations and joined by people from all walks of life, has placed significant pressure on their government, which has been effectively shut down by the protests. The parliament voted down the election results and the Supreme Court, citing widespread fraud, ordered a new runoff election before the end of the month.

If thousands of people descended upon Florida and Washington, D.C., in 2000, would it have been as easy for the Supreme Court to hand the election to the G.O.P.? Were the American people afraid that our democracy would be too fragile to withstand a challenge?

Unfortunately, we are not like the Ukrainian people, who chose to find out.

Ruskin is a documentary filmmaker who worked as a media observer in Broward County, Fla., during last month’s election. He is a graduate of the film program at New York University.

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