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Tennessee must guarantee fair, accurate elections

Jennie Young, Community Voices Columnist • May 22, 2019 at 7:15 AM

Your options aren’t clear when you feel you’ve been insulted by a machine. You just know this can’t be right.

That’s how we felt the first November we voted in Tennessee, in Erwin, the town of my childhood, and continued to feel every two years in Elizabethton. In Arizona, we’d been given ballots for inserting into a machine and punching in choices with a stylus. When finished, we removed the ballot, inspected it, and presented it for scanning before it was dropped into a secure box. Physical evidence of our vote. The first time we carried nothing into the booth, touched a screen for our choices, pushed CAST YOUR VOTE, read THANK YOU FOR VOTING, with no evidence of our vote to carry from the booth, it didn’t just feel anticlimactic. It seemed deflating and, in a way, insulting. The Florida hanging-chad kerfuffle in 2000 could have happened with Arizona‘s system, but at least we had reassurance that an audit or recount was possible.

We know well by now that there’s always another way data can be altered, that there are expert dark forces constantly trying new ways to breach systems. Minor tweaking here and there can be practically undetectable but make all the difference. Even cleverly manipulated major changes can escape scrutiny. Growing numbers of states reporting that Russian hackers seem to have scanned their voting systems isn’t reassuring, and Russians surely aren‘t the only ones threatening our votes. We even grow our own.

Only 14 of Tennessee’s 95 counties use systems with verifiable paper trails, and we are one among only 12 states that don’t have a statutory requirement for paper records of all ballots. That means that only “THANK YOU FOR VOTING” is the condescending reassurance most Tennesseans get.

I’m finding it difficult to discover just what happened since 2008 when the Tennessee legislature passed the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act almost unanimously. It mandated replacing all touch-screen systems with ones providing a paper record statewide before the 2010 election because of perceived vulnerabilities. So, what happened? Well, in very few words, 2008 was the year Republicans swept the legislature. It’s hard to follow the progression with old newspaper articles, but I’ve learned that they took office determined to stall implementation, with the Nashville Post reporting that “Ron Ramsey wasn’t joking about it being a priority.” Scoring one weakening after another until they practically abbreviated the voter confidence act right out of existence.

Democrats and Republican Rep. Frank Nicely of Strawberry Plains doggedly reintroduce it, to no avail. They’re joined by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, calling again and again, as in 2007, for a paper trail.

Other states have recognized the risks of insecure machines, and have updated or will update their election infrastructure. Virginia, for one, has already decommissioned 3,000 touch-screen machines and will have all replaced by 2020. Election officials there learned of significant security issues involving wireless access that could allow hackers to access vote tallies. Abroad, after warnings from their intelligence officials, the Netherlands has gone back exclusively to a manual tally of hand-marked paper ballots at the local level.

The impetus for this piece came after reading Rep. Phil Roe’s March 9 newsletter where he mimics Republican talking points to broadly reject H.R. 1, a far-reaching elections reform and ethics bill approved by House Democrats. It’s an important document for the good it will do when favorable political conditions allow, but more about that another time. It‘s enough to say Republicans predictably pan it as a “power grab,” and Democrats respond “Yes, a power grab for the people.”

Roe’s major objection seems to be that it “federalizes our election process,” and he specifically objects to mandating standards for voting machines. He says, “East Tennesseans ….are perfectly capable of handling elections, and they understand how to run elections in ways that works best for their voters.” Well, while our local election officials certainly do their best, we run-of-the-mill East Tennesseans have little say in the matter. It’s the laissez-faire attitude of our state leadership that, along with Phil Roe, denies us confidence that our votes will be counted and counted accurately. This is faith-based, a fundamentally unverifiable cyber-system for voting in East Tennessee.

What’s old can sometimes become new again to great advantage. Some of the folks best in position to know would get rid of computerized voting altogether. Cybersecurity experts in Georgia say all computerized voting systems are hackable and are urging paper ballots, filled out by hand. A National Academy of Sciences panel strongly advises all paper ballots by 2020. Almost all of Tennessee’s voting infrastructure is insecure and aging, nearing the end of useful life, and subject to breakdowns. Now would be a very good time to let Roe and our other legislators know that they’re in the wrong, before further investment in electronic voting.

Democracy is based on the principle of “one man one vote,” in which each person has the right to cast his or her vote and the right to have that vote counted. Any system, or related practice, that weakens voter confidence must go. As should any legislator who actively supports roadblocks to fair elections.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.