Chain of Custody for Recounts

By December 17, 2013 Uncategorized No Comments
[12/16/13] – In the current Virginia recount, voting machine chain of custody deserves a closer look. A handful of men control chain of custody for crucial portions of the recount process, which in Virginia is conducted entirely by re-running the ballots through voting computers, with votes counted out of public view. Oh yes, observers may be able to watch activity, such as people walking around a room with stacks of ballots, but human eyes may not examine the ballots themselves to see whether computer-generated results are true.

Ballot printing, voting machine storage, and voting machine programming are performed by middlemen. Spooner Hull, III, owner of Atlantic Election Services, services 40 of Virginia’s 133 jurisdictions, though they tend to have small vote quantities, with big jurisdictions serviced by PrintElect, and five other middlemen picking up a few locations.

Markus Schmidt, reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, quotes Spooner Hull as saying: “Absent an armed guard, I cannot make it any more secure.” Hull, according to the Dispatch, “owns a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Manassas where he stores about 600 machines for localities in the area, locked in cages, protected by steel doors, double locks and an alarm system.”1

The question not asked: “How do you secure it from yourself?”

Recounts are less about the count and more about the chain of custody. Whoever has custody ultimately has control over the count, whether or not they choose to exert it. Whoever has control over the ballots, which have been stored out of public view and generally without video surveillance, also has control of the count.

Chain of custody safeguards are less about catching a thief, and more about setting up transparency forcing thieves to do their deeds in plain sight of anyone who cares to watch. Surveillance video certainly makes for a worthwhile public records request by those closely following the recount. Who has it, what were the cameras pointing at, were they turned on, was the video retained? Virginia citizens can ask for copies of surveillance video from elections registrars, but the private middlemen, like Spooner Hull III, may balk, claiming that as private contractors they are exempt.

Not true, that exemption. It can be argued, with a good probability of winning in right to know litigation, that these middlemen are acting as agents of the state, and as such are subject to freedom of information law and election statutes themselves.

All that’s needed to control the outcome is 165 votes, out of 2.2 million cast.2

165 ballots. Which brings us back to the point of this article: Who’s watching chain of custody? Besides Spooner Hull and Printelect, who moves the cheese around?

People often ask me, “But can be done about this?” The hard truth is, Virginians aren’t going to restore election transparency over the next two days. But meaningful steps can be targeted, among them, publicly viewable live video feeds for ballot chain of custody. If the Ukraine can use live video feeds in its elections, and they do, then so can we. Another very meaningful chunk of progress can be achieved by, once and for all, treating election vendors as agents of the state, subject to precisely the same freedom of information laws as public officials, with the same requirements for transparency and chain of custody.

For details on election transparency principles, with sources and notes documenting their credibility, see the Transparency report at blackboxvoting.org: http://blackboxvoting.org/transparency/

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Concepts:

Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources: http://blackboxvoting.org/transparency/
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency: http://blackboxvoting.org/category/election-transparency/

Freedom of Information (FOI laws) – allow public access to data held by government, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions. Also called open records or sunshine laws. Governments are bound by a duty to publish and promote openness. Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_laws_by_country

NOTES:

  1. Markus Schmidt: Meet the man behind the voting machines, Richmond Times-Dispatch , 12/15/2013, http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/state-regional/government-politics/meet-the-man-behind-the-voting-machines/article_6ed82f18-f803-5d4b-8035-0be93ec7ff54.html
  2. James Hohmann, “Virginia Starts Recount in Attorney General’s Race”. (12/16/13) http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/virginia-attorney-general-recount-mark-herring-mark-obenshain-101199.html

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