Sources: Hand count to be requested in Congressional race

Miriam Raftery
Published: Monday July 3, 2006

Print This | Email This

The San Diego County Registrar's office has notified election integrity advocates that the deadline to request a manual hand count will be on Wednesday due to the 4th of July holiday tomorrow, which would have otherwise been the deadline for filing, RAW STORY has learned.

“This is not about Busby or Bilbray. This is about November and the entire election,” Brad Friedman of told residents of San Diego County at an emergency town hall meeting in Oceanside, California on June 28th.

Bilbray was sworn into Congress following the special election in the 50th Congressional District, despite the fact that thousands of absentee ballots remained uncounted. According to the Registrar’s office, Bilbray nosed out Busby 49.57% to 45.02% in the final tally, which was certified late Thursday on the eve of the 4th of July weekend.

The holiday-eve certification posed a major hurdle for activists, as California law allows only five days to file for a hand count or challenge. However, sources tell RAW STORY that the Registrar has extended the deadline to Wednesday, given the holiday.

At the Oceanside event, Friedman, who is the co-founder of Velvet Revolution, a voting reform movement, called for a hand-count of ballots and urged that San Diego Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas be held accountable for allegedly lax security procedures, including allowing poll workers to take home voting machines with programmable memory cards up to two weeks before the election. Under state law, violating the chain of custody for voting machines decertifies the machines.

Sources tell RAW STORY that a hand count request will likely be filed Wednesday.

Friedman noted that the national spotlight is focused on voting machine issues in the 50th Congressional District, the first House race of 2006. He added, “This our line in the sand.”

But officials’ decision to wait until the Friday before a four-day holiday weekend before certifying results, “[made] it really hard to contest in the five allowable days,” he observed, adding that he and other election reform activists had been “working around the clock” on potential legal actions.

Recent media coverage appears to be rallying public opinion in support of that view. Earlier this week, conservative San Diego radio talk show host Roger Hedgecock agreed that voting machines can be hacked and called for a return to paper ballots, hand-counted. “We now have allowed a system of counting our votes to be presented to us as a system that does it accurately, when it has manifestly been proven that it can be monkeyed with…and the results tampered,” Hedgecock said in an interview last week.

More than 97% of people who responded to a CNN Poll by Lou Dobbs agreed that electronic voting machines should be eliminated until they can be made secure. Audio from the Dobbs and Hedgecock interviews was played at the town hall meeting.

In addition, a preview of a new documentary by the makers of Votergate was aired, revealing Diebold executives denying that their machines could be hacked. “The movie shows the entire Hursti hack,” said documentary filmmaker Rob Cohen. “When people see it, they are outraged.”

On two separate occasions, computer expert Hursti proved that Diebold voting machines with memory cards in Leon County, Florida could be hacked and programmed to change votes in less than one minute.

A June 28 Washington Post article on electronic vote-rigging had a headline reading “A single person could swing an election.”

One day before the Oceanside town hall meeting, CNN host Lou Dobbs aired a segment critical of San Diego’s Registrar Mikel Haas, who allowed poll workers to take home voting machines with programmable memory cards for up to two weeks before the primary election. “This is enough to scare the dickens out of anybody,” Dobbs concluded.

Votergate, a documentary film, includes an interview with a San Diego poll worker who said machines were also taken home in the 2004 election. RAW STORY writer Miriam Raftery revealed in local newspaper articles last year that Haas was sending voting machines home with poll workers. Yet despite numerous complaints, Haas has done nothing significant to remedy the problem.

Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) president Mimi Kennedy earlier promised legal action against the County of San Diego and asked the town hall audience to submit financial pledges. “The Registrar did something illegal,” she observed. “There will be a legal remedy here. We won’t let it go unanswered.” Both PDA and the California Election Protection Network (CEPN) have issued resolutions of no confidence in the accuracy of the Busby-Bilbray race and called for a hand count paid for by the County.

San Diego Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee called on citizens to contact their representatives on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors (who are all Republicans) and ask the Board to publicly investigate election problems and adopt policies to protect voters’ rights.

“There are so many things wrong with the Registrar’s office in San Diego, it is unbelievable,” said Durfee, who called management of the office “despicable.” In addition to questions about voting machine reliability and machines sent home with poll workers, Durfee also cited other problems, including improper training of poll workers, campaign literature found inside church-based polling places, and voters who never received absentee ballots or sample ballots with candidate statements.

The San Diego County Registrar could not be reached for comment.

Durfee urged citizens of all parties to attend the next Board meeting on July 18th. “We need hundreds of people there to demand hearings, to demand improvements in that office, to get rid of bad technology or fix it – and I don’t know if it can be fixed. They also need to address voters who are starting to lose faith in the integrity of our elections.”

Conveniently, national election reform experts will be meeting at DemocracyFest, a national conference being held in San Diego, on July 14-16 – just two days before the Board of Supervisors meeting. Insiders predict that progressive momentum for local election reform can be expected to reach critical mass.

Durfee also called on citizens to elect election-reform advocate Debra Bowen as Secretary of State and urged Democrats to volunteer as poll watchers or poll workers for the November election.

“The old system was one Democrat and one Republican at each precinct to provide a sense of fairness,” Durfee told RAW STORY. “Now they take whoever they can get… We can’t rely on Republicans with all those machines in their living rooms.”

Jeeni Criscenzo, Democratic candidate for the adjacent 49th Congressional district seat currently held by Republican Darrell Issa, described trying to vote at 7 a.m., only to find a scanner jammed. Volunteering as a “poll cat” (election monitor) later on, she found more jammed scanners, as well as voting machines with broken seals. “Some didn’t even have the tamper-proof seals,” she added. Criscenzo became even more concerned after learning of what Friedman has dubbed “voting machine sleepovers” at poll workers’ homes.

“I decided to stand up,” said Criscenzo, who helped organized the Oceanside town hall meeting. “I will make sure that every vote counts and if I don’t win…I won’t concede if there is one iota of fraud in my mind. If we don’t change this, we don’t have a democracy anymore.”

San Diego’s Registrar is no stranger to controversy.

Last year, national voting rights advocate Jim March of Black Box Voting was arrested at the San Diego Registrar’s office for trying to observe the vote-counting on the Diebold central tabulator. March had complained that the machine, located behind glass, was too far away to read. After requests to move it closer were denied, March entered the tabulating room and was arrested. (Those charges were later dropped.) To avoid a similar problem, activists in nearby Riverside County sought to videotape vote tabulations.

But at last Wednesday’s town hall meeting, Tom Courbat of Riverside revealed that Riverside’s Registrar Barbara Dunmore has banned videotaping – even in the lobby. In the recent June primary, the Registrar’s office “lost track of 17 memory cards,” he said. In addition, he noted, “She told her staff to program DREs so that they couldn’t print out precinct results.”

Courbat also criticized Riverside Registrar workers for opening the envelopes containing paper ballots of 150 individuals who voted by paper ballot “because they didn’t trust the voting machines.” According to Courbat, Registrar employees violated voters’ privacy and trust by removing ballots from envelopes with personal identification and then keying votes into touchscreen machines. “They slapped them in the face,” Courbat concluded.

The Busby-Bilbray race used primarily Diebold optical scan voting machines, the same system implicated in the Hursti hack. In November, Haas plans to implement county-wide voting on Diebold touchscreen machines, which were recertified by Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson over widespread objections.

Friedman criticized McPherson for recertifying Diebold machines decertified by California’s former Secretary of State, Democrat Kevin Shelly, despite warnings from a U.C. Berkeley advisory board. “They looked at the software and said yes, the Hursti hack is a real threat,” Friedman noted, “and furthermore they found 16 more vulnerabilities that are more dangerous than the Hursti hack.”

Courbat also criticized the Secretary of State’s office for failing to account for millions of dollars in Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money. An audit of the Secretary of State’s office last year found that the State of California “could not account for half of all the funds that California had allotted for HAVA,” he said.

Increasingly, Republicans as well as Democrats are now questioning the accuracy and integrity of electronic voting machines, Friedman said at Wednesday’s town hall meeting. “They are realizing that our democracy is being subverted.”

In Pottowattamie, Iowa, two popular Republican incumbents lost their elections, according to ES&S optical scanner voting machines. But after the registrar ordered a hand-count of the ballots, he revealed, “Guess what? Both popular candidates came in first.” One of the candidates, placed tenth by the voting machines' inaccurate count, had in fact won, he added. (Article on one of the overturned races here)

Sequoia, the largest manufacturer of voting machines used in California, is owned by Venezuelan nationals. The machines use secret software. “So we have foreign countries counting our votes,” Friedman noted. Some conservatives have also voiced concern over the prospect of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez potentially having the ability to manipulate U.S. elections.

Most polls shortly before the election in the 50th Congressional district showed Busby and Bilbray in a dead heat, although a Busby campaign internal poll reportedly had Busby leading by 7% just days before the election. While some suggest voting machine errors or hacking could be to blame, pundits have suggested explanations including voter apathy or a Busby slip of the tongue on immigration.

A Los Angeles Times article offered another explanation, citing an influx of Republican operatives who claim to have mustered up 10,000 absentee ballots in the final days before the election.

Kennedy calls that assertion “claptrap,” noting that it would be difficult for precinct walkers to find 10,000 people at home on such short notice, let along find voters with absentee ballots handy.

Despite controversies over the Busby-Bilbray race, Busby did not call for a hand count to verify the accuracy of results. A position paper on her website states “Our focus is on Voting integrity for all Democrats” and calls on San Diego County residents to ask Board of Supervisors members to demand that public hearings be held on voting integrity, “especially the use of electronic machines.”

Busby’s hesitancy to make waves sparked criticism from Friedman. “Beating John Kerry for the speed concession department is not something we should be proud of,” he said.

Some suggest the Busby campaign may be hesitant to speak out about potential election rigging for fear it would discourage people from voting this fall, when she will face off against Bilbray again. (The June special election was to fill the seat of convicted ex-Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, but there will be a regular election in November.)

Cohen countered that notion. “We cannot back away from the truth because of fear. We have to vote no matter what,” he said. “We have to make it hard for them.”

Friedman later added, "There is absolutely no proof that I know of that standing up and fighting for electoral integrity suppresses the vote." There is, however, evidence to suggest the opposite." He pointed to Democratic Secretary of State candidate Debra Bowen, who ran almost entirely on the issue of electoral integrity--and defeated her primary opponent by more than 20 points during the same June 6th election.

"Beyond that," Friedman asked, "what good is a huge turnout anyway if the votes aren't going to be accurately counted by the machines? There is a huge disconnect in this bizarre Democratic theory."

A new DNC strategy reportedly will include training candidates not to concede until all votes are counted and to provide funds for legal challenges to election results.

But those policies weren’t in place in time to help with the controversy in the 50th Congressional district.

“Make all the noise you can,” Friedman advised citizens. He urged them to talk to media representatives and elected officials. “Don’t wait for anyone else to do it,” he concluded. “We will win—and we will save this democracy.”