E-Voting: Digital Democracy or a Cash Cow for Consultants?

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This article was first published as "E-Voting: Digital Democracy or a Cash Cow for Consultants?, 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.

Imagine that you have billions of dollars and less than three years to spend it all. If electronic voting machine companies saw the 2000 election debacle as a "tremendous market opportunity," the Help America Vote Act must seem like the Promised Land. Of course, salvation - or a lucrative government contract - doesn't just come to those who wait. Enter the local political figures turned lobbyists.

At $3.7 billion, New York's state contract may be the Holy Grail. Late last year, "though neither a mechanism for awarding a contract nor specification for an acceptable voting terminal have been agreed to yet, lobbyists for [e-voting] manufacturers have been gearing up," reported the New York Times. To boost its chances, Sequoia Voting Systems hired two in-state lobbying firms - a Republican firm with ties to Governor George Pataki and an influential Democratic firm steeped in local politics. Diebold Election Systems hired lobbyists with connections to former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Election Systems & Software (ES&S) hired a firm with ties to another former NYC mayor, John Lindsay.

Californians saw a rapidly spinning revolving door between e-voting interests and government. The former secretary of state who pushed for new voting machines and, in 2002, successfully sponsored a $200 million bond measure to fund counties' voting system upgrades is now a paid consultant for Sequoia Voting Systems, as are two of his former statehouse colleagues. The official who developed California's e-voting machine certification process now directs state operations for ES&S. The company also hired the former mayor of Sacramento to contact Sacramento County supervisors on its behalf, according to the Los Angeles Times. Deborah Seiler, a Diebold employee and former California chief of elections herself, remarked, "There's no question these contacts are helpful."

They certainly couldn't have hurt Sequoia Voting Systems, who won the $18.9 million contract for California's Santa Clara County. Sequoia's local lobbying team included the former campaign manager of the current San Jose mayor, a major local political contributor, a former mayoral aide, and a former city council member, according to the San Jose Mercury News. In San Bernardino County, a Diebold lobbyist even served as a campaign consultant for one county supervisor, according to the Press Enterprise.

To win the $20 million Cleveland-area e-voting contract, Hart InterCivic hired the former Ohio House majority leader and a former state senator as lobbyists; UniLect retained a former county board of elections chair; and Diebold hired a former state attorney general and secretary of state, according to Associated Press.

In Florida, ground zero for election problems, ES&S retained the services of a former secretary of state and one-time running mate of Governor Jeb Bush. In 2001, Global Election Systems (Diebold's predecessor) hired the former chair of Florida's Republican Party, the former running mate of a previous governor, and a former environmental advisor to Jeb Bush, according to the Miami Herald. The lobbyist trying to win the $24.5 million Miami-Dade contract for ES&S was a top GOP lawyer who worked against the recount in 2000. The Votomatic punch-card machines at the center of the 2000 Florida election debacle were, ironically enough, also manufactured by ES&S.

Electronic voting machine manufacturers have used other forms of persuasion, as well. In Ohio, Diebold Election Systems "dangled a pledge to build voting machines in Ohio if it got a statewide contract," according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In California's Riverside County, conflict-of-interest allegations surrounded a voter registrar who accepted $1,080 in travel and lodging expenses from Sequoia Voting Systems. E-voting companies competing for San Bernardino County's more than $13 million contract made campaign contributions to several county supervisors.

With questions remaining about the security and reliability of electronic voting machines, and voluntary federal guidelines not yet developed, for-profit e-voting companies obviously believe that the key to success is heavy lobbying. The important question is how much these overtures will influence decisions made by under-resourced state and local officials.

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