A Short but Tragic History of E-voting Public Relations

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This article was first published A Short but Tragic History of E-voting Public Relations, PR Watch, Volume 11, No. 2, 2nd Quarter 2004. The original article was authored by Diane Farsetta and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

When the president of one of the country's largest electronic voting machine manufacturers, Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems' Bob Urosevich, went before California's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel in late April 2004, two people accompanied him: a defense lawyer and "a public relations consultant hired specifically to see the company through its California crisis," according to Wired reporter Kim Zetter.

The PR consultant, Marvin Singleton, was described during the hearing by a Diebold representative as someone who "works 100 hours a week on doing nothing more than trying to be a clear line of communication between our company" and the state. Apparently that wasn't enough.

The voting panel was deciding how to respond to Diebold's business practices in the state, including what they considered "persistent and aggressive marketing" of e-voting machines not yet certified, misrepresentation of machines' certification status to officials, and installation of uncertified software in machines in 17 counties without officials' knowledge.

The panel voted unanimously to recommend decertification of one Diebold model, the AccuVote-TSx, and to send their findings to the state attorney general for possible prosecution. Calling Diebold's actions "fraudulent" and "deceitful," California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley went beyond the panel's recommendations, banning the AccuVote-TSx in four counties and decertifying all touchscreen voting systems until the machines meet additional security standards.

Moreover, Shelley told reporters, "I have the letter here . . . asking the Attorney General to pursue criminal and civil actions against Diebold." Associated Press reported Diebold "acknowledged that it had 'alienated' the secretary of state's office and promised to redouble efforts to improve relations with counties and the state."

Your Election Crisis Is Our Marketing Opportunity

Diebold has been a particularly long lightning rod for criticism, but its dramatic fall from grace in California is indicative of the increased - and increasingly negative - attention being paid to electronic voting.

It wasn't always this way. Consider Texas-based e-voting company Hart InterCivic's November 9, 2000 press release. Its language now seems almost quaint (if opportunistic) in its claims to be able to save the country from the kind of election nightmares the national media had just woken up to.

"Electronic voting and reporting can be instrumental in avoiding the situation we're seeing in the Presidential election. . . . The delay caused by the recount in Florida, as well as the tally of overseas ballots, speaks volumes about the potential benefit of an electronic voting system. If Florida had used an e-voting system, we'd know the winner already, and there would be a party going on right now in Austin or Nashville," Hart InterCivic senior vice-president Jerry Meadows said in the release.

Around the same time, the Unisys, Microsoft and Dell companies were salivating over what their research suggested was a "tremendous market opportunity to capitalize on Unisys best-of-breed electronic voting solution," given that around half of American voters were using "obsolete" machines that would likely soon be replaced, according to the PR trade publication the Holmes Report.

Unisys hired the world's largest PR firm, Weber Shandwick, to implement "a proactive media outreach plan positioning Unisys executives as thought leaders on how their voting technology could have alleviated the election problems," the Holmes Report wrote. The strategy was for Unisys to use "the 2000 presidential election controversy as a news hook," and to seize the opportunity to launch the "Unisys e-@ction Election Solutions" product.

In its PR work, Weber Shandwick targeted "local, state and federal government professionals," with an eye towards securing lucrative future contracts for Unisys. For media outreach, the firm developed "a news release, media advisory, pitch letters, talking points . . . [and] a video news release," and provided "media spokesperson training" for Unisys executives.

Kicking off the media blitz, Weber Shandwick arranged for Unisys CEO Lawrence Weinbach to grant an exclusive interview to Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Orey. Having news of the product launch break in such a prestigious publication would "add credibility," the PR firm counseled. The 2000 Unisys PR campaign, which by Weber Shandwick's reckoning generated nearly one billion mentions in U.S. electronic and print media, was considered extremely successful. Unisys, Microsoft and Dell, however, later decided to stay out of the electronic voting business.

As American as Apple Pie

The at-this-point undeniably sorry state of US elections, coupled with strong civil rights, disabled rights and voting rights activism, led the U.S. Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in October 2002. (One American Civil Liberties Union voting rights campaign highlighting racial disparities in voting ran newspaper ads that began: "There was a day in American history when black people counted less than white people: November 7, 2000.")

HAVA establishes several major new federal voting requirements and provides almost $4 billion to states, to meet those requirements, which include a centralized statewide electronic list of eligible voters, provisional and "second chance" balloting, increased voter outreach and education programs, and updated and accessible voting machines. The law specifically calls for the replacement of punch card and lever voting machines and for the improvement of voting technologies.

Electronic voting (excluding one section funding a study on internet voting) is mentioned only once in HAVA, in a subsection titled "Accessibility for individuals with disabilities." This clause requires states to provide "the same opportunity for access and participation" for voters with disabilities by providing "at least one direct recording electronic voting system or other voting system equipped for individuals with disabilities at each polling place." The groups that had pushed for major improvements in the country's elections - including the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the League of Women Voters - expressed cautious optimism that, with continued activism at the state level, HAVA could have a significant, positive impact.

Electronic voting machine and other technology companies, in contrast, saw their predicted "tremendous market opportunity" coming to pass. The same week that George Bush signed HAVA into law, major defense contractor Northrop Grumman signed an agreement with iPaper LLC for exclusive rights to license and manufacture their electronic voting systems. In doing so, Northrop Grumman joined "several other large systems integrators that are actively pursuing the elections market," including Accenture, BearingPoint, Electronic Data Systems and Unisys, according to Washington Technology.

There were some concerns with electronic voting voiced around the November 2002 mid-term elections. The San Antonio Express-News warned that, although one-fifth of the nation's voters were already using e-voting machines, their accuracy was "still open to question." Salon.com asked, "If the result of an important election using touch-screen machines ever comes into doubt . . . how will we bring ourselves to believe in the results?" But these stories were balanced, if not overshadowed, by reports like the Charlotte Observer's "New Electronic Vote System Has Successful Debut," and Investor's Business Daily's "Georgians Had Peachy Time Using Their New Electronic Voting System."

With new riches on the horizon and generally positive media coverage, electronic voting companies launched upbeat PR campaigns. The Nebraska-based company Election Systems & Software (ES&S) hit PR paydirt in March 2003 when it became a sponsor of the Declaration of Independence Road Trip. The Road Trip is a travelling exhibit of one of the 25 known original copies of the Declaration of Independence, with an estimated 2,000 visitors each day in cities across the United States. Road Trip sponsorship allowed ES&S to send its voting machines travelling across the country with one of the most powerful symbols of American history and democracy.

"Now with ES&S support, Declaration of Independence Road Trip visitors will be able to electronically cast their vote on several topics - such as lowering the voting age, volunteer public service, and the environment - all with just the touch of a finger using ES&S iVotronic™ touch screen voting units," the company noted on its website. The Road Trip "presents a wonderful opportunity for both the current and future voters of America to experience first-hand the ease of touch screen voting on the iVotronic," said ES&S president Aldo Tesi. The release of local "voting results" provided numerous, feel-good media opportunities.

The Rise of the Critics

But as electronic voting became a reality for more people across the country, expert criticisms and troubling incidents multiplied.

A July 2002 report from Johns Hopkins and Rice University researchers led by computer scientist Aviel Rubin concluded that major e-voting systems lacked "even the most minimal security standards. . . . As a society, we must carefully consider the risks inherent in electronic voting, as it places our very democracy at risk."

Ohio's secretary of state commissioned an independent security assessment of electronic voting machines from Diebold, ES&S, Hart InterCivic, and Sequoia Voting Systems - the four top vendors. The study identified security concerns with each system, including potential vote tampering, election disruption, and unauthorized access to supervisory functions. Ohio requested an extension from the federal government for HAVA compliance, hoping the extra time would allow e-voting companies to improve their machines' security measures.

In early 2003, activist Bev Harris was able to gain access to sensitive files on a Diebold website, including electronic voting machine software code, a Texas voter registration list, and California primary election results. She's since documented 56 cases where e-voting machine flaws were implicated in miscounts. In Virginia, a 2003 school board race was called into question when voters had trouble casting their ballots for one candidate on Advanced Voting Solutions machines. Her opponent won by one percent. In North Carolina, ES&S machines lost more than 400 absentee ballots cast in a 2004 election. In California, e-voting machines in more than half of San Diego County's precincts malfunctioned during the 2004 presidential primary. Some voters were disenfranchised due to insufficient numbers of back-up paper ballots.

Even the Florida 2000 debacle - from which the e-voting companies claimed to be able to save America - included a major electronic voting glitch. In a Volusia County precinct where just over 400 people voted, e-voting machines registered the outcome as 2,813 votes for Bush and negative 16,022 votes for Gore. USA Today reported that on election night "the decision desks of the five networks and the Associated Press . . . were looking at models that included the negative Gore count." The erroneous results were responsible for early reports of a Bush win in Florida.

In less than two years, the critics of electronic voting achieved major media coverage and Congressional attention.

Computer science experts, including John Hopkins' Rubin, Harvard's Rebecca Mercuri and Stanford's David Dill, gave credibility to what the electronic voting industry would like to dismiss as mere "hypothetical" or "paranoid" critiques. The rapid dissemination of leaked and hacked e-voting company documents via the internet boosted media attention while calling into question the companies' real intentions - not to mention their ability to design and implement security systems.

The mounting pressure led staunch HAVA advocates like the League of Women Voters to spend increasing amounts of time addressing electronic voting concerns. While maintaining that demands for paper receipts of each vote cast on e-voting machines are "extreme," "unnecessary," and "counterproductive," and stressing that their primary concerns are voter registration and accessibility, the League now devotes nearly all of its HAVA implementation web page to electronic voting articles.

Critics of electronic voting have also used public relations and lobbying to become a force that the industry has no choice but to reckon with. In early 2004, David Dill's Verified Voting organization hired NewsMark Public Relations, a firm founded by former BBC journalist and former media strategist for the British government Mark Hopkinson. The Ruckus Society and Global Majority have worked with Denver-based lefty PR firm Cause Communications on anti-Diebold rallies. Bev Harris, of Black Box Voting, is herself a former PR practitioner. And the person who Harris recently wrote would be her choice for the "one person who lit the match" on the e-voting issue is California-based, long-time professional gun lobbyist Jim March.

The Industry Strikes Back

Shortly after Avi Rubin's study cast doubts on the security of electronic voting systems, the "only trade association representing the broad spectrum of the world-leading U.S. IT [information technology] industry" urged e-voting companies to unite.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) does media work, publishes studies, and lobbies at the state, national, and international levels on behalf of its more than 400 US corporate and 50 foreign IT association members. It has its own political action committee, the ITAA "NET" PAC, focused on regulatory, tax, and other legislative issues important to the computer and telecommunications industries. Accenture, Advanced Voting Solutions, Dell, Diebold, ES&S, Hart InterCivic, Northrop Grumman, Sequoia Voting Systems, Unisys, and VoteHere are all ITAA members.

ITAA's Director of Enterprise Solutions, Michael Kerr, wrote and submitted an "ITAA eVoting Industry Coalition Draft Plan" to relevant member companies. The coalition plan's overall goals are to "create confidence and trust in the elections industry," "promote the adoption of technology-based solutions for the elections industry," and "repair short-term damage done by negative reports and media coverage of electronic voting." To do so, the plan advocates outreach to media, elected officials, those "involved in the purchase decision," academics, the general public, "international counterparts," and government contractors (in that order) to promote electronic voting as "the 'gold standard' to which all should aspire." Specific proposed activities include lobbying, carrying out surveys, holding focus groups, networking at conferences, publishing "collaborative research on non-competitive issues," and developing an industry "code of ethics."

In its conclusion, Kerr's coalition plan stresses that e-voting companies would benefit from ITAA's "sophisticated government affairs and public relations apparatus" and "track record of lobbying for federal funding." Depending on the level of activities, ITAA offered to implement the coalition plan on behalf of its e-voting member companies for a total cost of $100,000 to $200,000, on top of their ITAA dues.

Bev Harris obtained the ITAA eVoting Industry Coalition Draft Plan and posted it on her website. Kerr subsequently played down the plan's importance, saying it's "just a standard trade association plan to address issues in the marketplace," according to Wired news. Other electronic voting critics were able to join an industry conference call discussing the ITAA draft plan. According to call notes also posted on Bev Harris' site, emphasis was placed on the industry becoming "more aggressive" and "more coordinated" in order to have more input into the e-voting machine certification process.

ITAA president Harris Miller is quoted in the call notes as saying that their coalition plan was careful in its language. "We just didn't want a document floating around saying the election industry is in trouble, so they decided to put together a lobbying campaign," he said. Later in the call, Miller gave another example of the benefits a coalition effort would provide: "Frequently . . . in a trade association, you don't want to talk about the issues as individual companies. We have that issue right now with the Buy America Act, for example, in Congress. No company wants to act like it's against Buy America - even though they're all against it - so I take all the heat for them."

In late October 2003, ITAA's Michael Kerr told Technology Daily that the electronic voting machine companies had not yet decided whether to implement the ITAA coalition plan, but that he expected their decision "fairly soon." On December 9, the ITAA announced the formation of the Election Technology Council (ETC).

The New Kid on the Black Box Block

"We look forward to working with the members of the ETC to help this industry find its collective voice and to bring the benefits of electronic voting to every citizen," Harris Miller said, in ITAA's press release heralding the ETC's formation. ETC's founding members are Advanced Voting Systems, Diebold, ES&S, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia, and Unilect. Hart InterCivic head David Hart chairs the group. ITAA staff person and coalition plan author Michael Kerr is ETC's director.

Quoted in the ITAA press release, Hart said ETC formed just when "voters are beginning to realize the benefits of electronic voting." But Computerworld reported a slightly different story. "We came together because our environment has become chaotic," Hart told the publication. "We need to be able to speak as an industry in a single voice on the areas being regulated. . . . We want to be part of the debate and tell our industry's side of the story. There's a lot of misinformation."

There were likely other reasons for the timing of ETC's launch. The following week, the US Senate confirmed the two final members of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the federal body overseeing HAVA implementation. At the same time, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) held its first e-voting meeting "to gather input from election officials, secretaries of state, voting-machine makers, computer security professionals and voting activists about how to address voters' lagging confidence in election systems." The EAC and NIST are to work together to develop voluntary federal voting systems standards.

In an interview with PR Watch, Michael Kerr said that ETC was "still kind of formative. . . . We've obviously been tracking the security debate." But he did identify a few of the group's priorities, including making the "state certification process more uniform and faster" and "securing a nomination" for a seat on the EAC's 14-member Technical Guidelines Development Committee. ETC is focused solely on the national level of debate and policymaking, though several e-voting company members are also active on the state level, according to Kerr. He said the ETC brings "an industry wide perspective" to the debate, free from "the marketing or sales perspectives of individual vendors," and noted ITAA's long history of "active involvement in government."

When asked about the claims of e-voting critics, Kerr said, "There are many things that should reassure people who use electronic voting. . . . The critics are focused on hypothetical scenarios . . . not on how the system is actually implemented." Although "no technology is invulnerable," he claimed, "there have been no documented security breaches with electronic voting in an election." Others of the "many positive aspects e-voting gives to the American voters" Kerr identified include adaptability to minority languages, accessibility to disabled voters and reductions in ballot spoiling.

While maintaining a pretty low media profile thus far, one indication of the extent of ETC's influence came from a December 26, 2003 column in Wilmington's News Journal. Written by the Delaware commissioner of elections and titled "Voting Machines Are Reliable," the piece included a warning: "Some people are riding a bandwagon wanting receipts of their votes so they know they have been cast, and some states are obliging that trend. That opens the door for tampering with voting machines to switch and lose votes as well as 'fix' the paper receipts." The column ended, "Contact my office . . . for additional information by the Election Technology Council."

We've Only Just Begun

On May 5, 2004, the Election Assistance Commission held its first public hearing on electronic voting. Although the Verified Voting group claimed "most speakers represent those who would not require a paper trail" and called on the EAC "to provide equal time to proponents of paper ballots," the Associated Press reported on the hearing as a back-and-forth among pro-receipt ("a backstop against computer errors, crashes or tampering") and anti-receipt ("would cause chaos . . . could drive away" disabled and non-English-speaking voters) camps. Newsday noted that the EAC was starting its work about a year behind schedule and "with only $1.2 million of the $10 million the agency was slated to get."

Although the hearing included a "vendor's panel," the ETC's "unified voice" was not heard as such. But the day prior to the hearing, ITAA "released a survey that found 77 percent of registered voters were either 'not very concerned' or 'not concerned at all' about the security of election systems," according to AP.

With a relatively short timeline - states must comply with HAVA by January 2006 - for major decisions involving significant amounts of money, both the electronic voting industry and its critics are sure to intensify the PR war in the months to come.

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