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New Election Commission on a mission - Part II

Could someone with unlimited funds and a high level of technical skill and desire to do it, hack into the (voting) machines? Anything could happen however ... Last week, the New Tri-State Defender featured Part I of a dialogue between President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II, Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku, attorney Robert Meyers, Shelby County Election Commission chairman, and newly appointed Election Commissioner Norma Lester. Myers and Lester said the commission is engaged in a new approach to community engagement and the carrying out of the roles and responsibilities of the commission.

Electronic manipulation – reality and myth

Bernal E. Smith II: There have been issues brought up and written about over the years about the susceptibility of the machines, currently being used by the Shelby County Election Commission, to hacking and outside manipulation. Additionally, arguments have been made for the need for a paper or audit trail to support electronically captured votes. The General Assembly, in fact, enacted a bill requiring a paper trail but subsequently, on the first day of the 2010 legislative session, voted to delay implementation of the bill for two years.

Are the machines that we have capable of consistently delivering fair and unbiased election? And are they susceptible to hacking or other outside influences that might skew votes and compromise an election?

Robert Meyers: This answer is not necessarily reflective of the entire commission because we have not discussed it as a group, but I think the machines we have are great, they work very well, they are easy to use, people are used to them and they are very effective. Might I like to have some sort of paper audit trail? I certainly would, but there gets to be a lot of technical issues with implementation….

Could there be something wrong with the machines or could they be hacked? Yes, given access and enough time with enough technology and know-how someone could hack into them just like any other computer system. I would never say they are infallible or fool proof, but I will say that we guard them. They are currently under video surveillance, they are behind locked doors. They are separated from each other and are not connected until such time that we are in the process of tabulating an election. And even then they are only connected at the precinct level in order to get the precinct totals, and then those totals are fed into the tabulation computers at various zone sites.

Could someone with unlimited funds and a high level of technical skill and desire to do it, hack into the machines? Anything could happen however, I don’t believe that it has happened anywhere and certainly not here in Shelby County and I believe when you look at the demographics here it demonstrates that to be true.  

B.E. Smith: Can you further explain what you mean by “look at the demographics?”

R. Meyers: When you look at certain precincts that have always voted for one party or the other and they’ve pretty much always voted that way, Democrat or Republican. There is an argument that it only takes a few votes to skew an election one way or another from any of those precincts. But the results have been consistent. Most of the close elections have been won by the Democratic Party and most of the bigger-margin wins have been won by the Republican Party, and it’s my belief that when you look at the demographics information you would see that it was a turnout-related issue more than any other issue that could have arisen.

So, I never want to mislead anyone and say that the machines are infallible. They are not, they are machines made by people and people are in control of them. However, all the alternative systems are all computers and are susceptible to some of the same issues. Obviously going back to paper ballots doesn’t make sense either. I believe it comes down to an academic argument about what’s possible but not necessarily what has or is likely to happen.

B.E. Smith: Well, for me it all goes back to voter confidence. In my estimation, irrespective of party it’s about encouraging more people to exercise their constitutional right to vote and participate in the electoral process. And the more confidence they have in the system and the machines and the people governing those machines, the more likely those folks are to vote. Our role is to make sure people have the best information to be able to go out and make good choices, so it is critical for me that we get past those stories to the truth.

R. Meyers: I would agree and – this is a personal statement not a commission statement – it frustrates me when people, for their own political advantage, will say something that is technically true – “the machines could be hacked” – when obviously there is no real hard evidence that it’s been done or has been done. The end result is it tells people not to come vote. Certainly Commissioner Lester and I will be doing everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen on our watch. At some point you have to have some faith that the people who are in charge of handling these processes are doing them well and making the right choices, unless you are given strong information to the contrary.

Norma Lester: I’ve been learning a lot about this election process and can offer that the systems that are in place ensure that both parties have equal representation in every aspect of the process from the security to the selection of poll workers; and I’ll say we do need poll workers! But even the technicians that are full-time staffers are equally balanced by political party. So from my perspective proper systems have been put in place to make sure that things work according to the intent of the law.

Purging the rolls

Karanja A. Ajanaku: At a recent town hall meeting a lot of questions were brought up regarding the purging of the voting rolls. Can you speak to those concerns?

N. Lester: That is a concern that has come up quite a bit. Purging is done to eliminate people who are deceased, have moved, or been convicted of felonious crimes. Relative to time, the law says that a person should not be purged unless they have not voted within a 10-year period. However, if they are purged, they can re-register. It is important to note that this is not a permanent condition. Generally, those voters who are purged are notified and will have time to re-register in time to vote in coming elections.

R. Meyers: We are legally required by statute to purge and it happens regularly as we get information about peoples’ deaths, convictions or request because someone has moved. Looking at those numbers for the first part of the year, we ended up purging about 3,400 people for the first part of the year. However, during the same period we added about 4,400 new registered voters. Historically these numbers have been consistent relative to numbers purged and numbers registered.

The big purge that happens...because we look back ten years...impacts people who have not voted in that period. The purpose is essentially to maintain the integrity of the voting roles so we don’t have so many people that aren’t going to vote that people could potentially manipulate and take advantage of that condition. Additionally, it ensures that candidates don’t waste money attempting to reach voters that aren’t actually going to vote or can’t vote. Purging allows more of a true picture of who’s eligible and likely to vote for candidates seeking to educate voters about their campaigns with mailers or calls or other methods.

N. Lester: Voters can verify their eligibility to vote online at www.shelbyvote.com. Some recent discussion since the town hall meeting included providing information online regarding the purging process, as well as providing information to legislators about who has been purged in their districts. The process of staying out and engaging the public is critical to the goals we’ve set and in strengthening voter knowledge and participation.

I’d also like to offer that this commission is a relatively new commission with several new faces with new ideas. It’s one of the most diversified commissions with two African Americans, two women and ages that span from 22 to 69. This provides an opportunity for more effective execution as an administrative body.

Restoration of voters rights:

B.E. Smith: There are a segment of folks that have run afoul of the law, served their time, and are now back in the community. These folks are eligible and desire to have their voting rights restored. Is there a plan or effort in this election commission to make sure that these people have adequate access to the information they need to expeditiously get their voting rights restored?

N. Lester: Yes, this is a priority for us and we’re going to get the information out there in various ways. There are some serious crimes that make people ineligible for restoration, but for those that are eligible, they don’t need an attorney to get it done. However, they must do some things, including clearing papers with the probation/parole board and securing a letter to that affect. They also have to (be) free of any court costs. You can’t owe the State any money.

B.E. Smith: Things like restoration of voter’s rights or simply ensuring the ability of more citizens to vote are critical issues that we will continue to champion. I intend to continue to work with you, challenge you and engage with you to provide information to our readers on a regular basis. Are there any last things that you’d like to offer for this particular discussion?

N. Lester: We want to be a valued source of information. Particularly in the African-American community I want to galvanize efforts around voting rights restoration, voters’ registration and information on the new law requiring picture ID. I believe that the faith-based community can play a major role in making sure these things happen. If they can work through their congregations and help identify those that need assistance now, in 2012 when the law goes into effect there will be fewer issues. I am challenging both the media and the faith-based communities to assist us with issues like voter rights restoration and voter ID.

R. Meyers: One of the potential advantages of the picture identification requirement and the purging processes arises out of the Terry Roland/Ophelia Ford lawsuit where there were documented voters who were actually deceased. So, theoretically having a picture ID would have reduced the likelihood of those kinds of things happening, as would purging of the rolls.

Ultimately there may be issues with the law, but at this point it is law and we’ve got to do what’s necessary to effectively implement it. Commissioner Lester has demonstrated great leadership in this approach to make sure the community is informed and ready. We will continue our efforts to inform, engage and strengthen the community’s confidence in exercising their right to vote.  

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