Toward more effective approaches

(And why hacking demos are now insanity)

About once a week, I am asked to bring in a team somewhere and demonstrate the hacking of a voting system. I don’t, because I’ve concluded this is a form of insanity, tracking the old adage that insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over again and expecting a different result.

If you want to see a demonstration of hacking voting machines, just click here to watch the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy.”

That was a groundbreaking effort, by the Black Box Voting organization and two exceptional British filmmakers (Russell Michaels and Simon Ardizzone). But in the end it changed nothing, and new hacking demonstrations never will.

That’s because they focus public attention on security, diverting attention from the real issue: Our right to self-government, and how current election systems have stripped away necessary public controls.

The crucial concept here is not “security”—because as it turns out, you can NEVER secure a system against its own administrator—but rather, the right to self-government. It is smack dab front page in the US Constitution that representatives shall be chosen “by the people,” and what has happened with our election system is that the choosing system for our governance has been usurped by the government itself, removing it from the public. And if you doubt that we have an inalienable right to self-government, take a close look at the Declaration of Independence, and for added academia read the diagrams carefully in the eminent Laurence H. Tribe’s book “The Invisible Constitution,” where self-governance is a cornerstone.

Back to hacking: You cannot secure a computer from its own administrator. Its administrator is an insider in a government office, and/or the vendors he selects.

Why won’t hacking more systems prove our point?

It was a good start, to help the public with conceptual issues about computerized vote counting. But:

1. Nothing meaningful has changed, and some elections jurisdictions actually went right out and purchased the exact specifications they saw in the demonstrations, for in-house use.

2. Further thought on this reveals an incontrovertible truth: Any concealed, computerized system can be subverted by its own administrator.

3. Focus on computer security gave birth to an ivory tower and rather greedy little sub-industry, self-proclaimed “security” experts who promise to make a system that we could trust. Upon further review, what they mean is that we should trust THEM to tell us that the system “has been verified.”

If you doubt this, try asking any one of these consultants if they mean “the public can see and authenticate” or “it will be verified for the public to trust.” Inevitably, (after professing not to understand your question and sometimes, attempting to divert you to some altogether different topic), they come down to this: “It will be verified [by us] for you.”

This simply shifts trust from the government to an academic elite, and makes the system not a whit more accountable to the public.

So where do we go from here?

Black Box Voting recently helped sponsor an event called The Democracy School in New Hampshire. The Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools are a key piece of community organizing by The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

Those running the Democracy School are focused on environmental issues. But the lessons they bring to the table about what works to take back public controls are illuminating.

They are faced with exactly the same obstacles we encounter when fighting for the restoration of public elections—corporate takeovers of the public commons, nonresponsive legislators, structurally problematic systems which block self-governance, and the CATTLE CHUTE.

The Cattle Chute is their term for that pervasive tactic whereby public problems are redefined into microscopic single issues; then public complainers are funneled to a hearing, over a nonessential micro-issue like “should version 1.54 be certified?”

The public is taught that the cattle chute is democracy, while what it is really doing is diverting from the core issue.

Only after years of being funneled down the cattle chutes do many of us see that this does not take us nearer to our goal.

The core problem in elections is concealment of the essential processes, removing public ability to see and authenticate the crucial steps (who can vote, who did vote, chain of custody and the count).

Engaging in these issues on human rights grounds is amazing. People understand it in 10 minutes. Then we get to the real issue: “Do you believe in self-government or not?”

I find that many of the USA scientists who have become part of the elections industry admit they do not believe the public has a right to authenticate. Rather, they contend, the public should accept having the elections “verified” on their behalf, again using insiders and concealed systems.

That is not freedom, it is simply transferring control over the process from one entity (government) to another (a small handful of scientists).

German scientists were more intellectually honest, or at least, actually believed in freedom, and so they testified in court that you cannot secure the system from its own administrator. Here in the USA, our scientific community is not so honest. They are raking in millions in grants and consulting fees, and government officials are relying on them. So we have to circumvent them.

The Democracy School faced the same problems—cattle chutes, corporations, and academics striving to answer the wrong problem.

They have succeeded by going local, focusing on Home Rule in the most real way—and that means, knowing that laws which remove our right to self-governance are invalid laws, and should be ignored if necessary.

In the face of resistance from every level of every “elected” official, local citizens have begun taking control, passing local ordinances that prohibit, for example, dumping sludge on their property. This despite efforts to overrule by the state, and refusal of local officials (at first) to comply. They simply did it, made it happen, and when the state tried to tell them their law was not legal, said, “So sue us.” The state did, the first time—in this case, the state was Pennsylvania, but other local ordinances in other communities followed, forcing a Pennsylvania state official to utter the words that he does not believe there is a right to self-governance.

Eh?

Wow. Now THAT’S a statement that will make you unelectable. If we had real public elections.

When faced with undemocratic arrogance, it is useful to get it out in the open. They want to say that? Good. Mark them with yellow tape so everyone can see what they really stand for. Laugh at them, for they are ridiculous, and know who they are, for they need to be removed.

Now let’s translate the concept of taking power through local control to restoration of public elections.

Nancy Tobi passed a law in her local community prohibiting concealed election processes. She researched the process, got the signatures, presented it in public meeting, got the vote and now it’s law.

In Lyndeborough, the list of who can vote can be purchased for $25. The list of who did vote is at the polling place and can be reviewed by anyone. The chain of custody is in public view at all times, with all votes, including the minute number of absentee votes allowed for need-only voters, hand counted in public on Election Night before any ballots are moved anywhere.

Does this mean only hand counting will do? Engaging in debate on that transfers your activism from rights to mechanics. When asked what mechanism she is recommending, New York attorney and activist Andi Novick replied, “Any mechanism that lets the public see and authenticate, without need for special expertise.”

Carve out local laws in terms of RIGHTS, not MECHANICS.

There are 80,000 home rule locations in the USA, and many different derivatives empowering various actions for incremental gain. And for those locations without Home Rule, the Democracy School points out that structures which remove self-governance are invalid structures. “Just do it,” they say. Never apologize. Stay on message. Don’t back down.

When it comes to elections, there is some low-hanging fruit, you know. Over 1,000 locations still hand count in public—a path of least resistance to set multiple local precedents.

The key is no longer hacking the machines, but instead, educating our constituencies on their right to public controls, and then—starting local—organizing, empowering, and taking control.

Bev Harris is the founder and administrator of Black Box Voting, where this article was originally published.

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