What was happening was one of the most serious political crises of our time, a five-week struggle which ended in the partisan rancor of a 5-4 decision by the justices, a decision that was roundly criticized back then and which has never been cited since by the justices. Al Gore won the national popular vote but lost the election because he lost Florida's electoral votes. And he lost Florida amid great chaos over its ballots and its recount rules. It was a matter of equal protection, the high court's conservatives ruled; it would be unfair to treat recounted ballots differently.
The primary lessons of the Florida recount, at least as far as public officials were concerned, was that our elections were too prone to human error and partisan abuse, our voting machines were antiquated and inconsistent, and our state electoral procedures were chaotic. (For you first-time voters out there, you can go ahead now and look up Katherine Harris.) Many folks, in Florida and elsewhere, were shocked to discover that so many nameless bureaucrats had so much power both to screw up ballots (see, e.g., butterfly) and to futz around with punched-out "chads," trying to interpret the "intent of the voter."
In direct response to the embarrassment of the 2000 election, and even before the next national election in 2002, Congress passed, and the aforementioned Bush signed, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), federal legislation designed to raise state election standards. It passed 92-2 in the Senate and 357-48 in the House of Representatives. The preamble to the law states its purpose:
To establish a program to provide funds to States to replace punch card voting systems, to establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of Federal elections and to otherwise provide assistance with the administration of certain Federal election laws and programs, to establish minimum election administration standards for States and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of Federal elections, and for other purposes.
In order for the states to improve their voting systems, they needed money. And HAVA authorized nearly $4 billion for the upgrade. The states gobbled up the money. And so did the electronic-voting companies. HAVA, we were told, was an example of bipartisan success, where both the winners and losers of 2000 had come together to protect the rights of all Americans to have their votes counted as accurately and fairly as possible. The only problem with the story, and the law, was that the money found its way into the wrong hands around the same time that the public oversight required by the law was turning out to be a sham.
The Recent Past
Let's now catch up with Collier's piece. The practices she chronicles may be new, but the patterns aren't. There were problems with electronic-voting irregularities before Florida, she contends, and cites as an example the 1996 Senate race in Nebraska, where Chuck Hagel won a surprisingly decisive victory over Ben Nelson. The polls were even days before the election, but Hagel won by 15 percent of the vote -- votes counted by a company Hagel had chaired until shortly before the election. The "surprising scale of his win," Collier writes, "awakened a new fear among voting-rights activists."
The intervening 16 years -- and electronic-voting irregularities in most of the five national elections since 2002 -- have done little to allay those fears. Nor did the Help America Vote Act. Collier writes that the law isn't ensuring voting accuracy or the reliability of election results but instead is "accelerating a deterioration of our electoral system that most Americans have yet to recognize, let alone understand." For example, Collier writes about an appalling lack of online security for electronic voting operations:
As recently as September 2011, a team at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory hacked into one of Diebold's old Accuvote touchscreen systems. Their report asserted that anyone with $26 in parts and an eighth-grade science education would be able to manipulate the outcome of an election.
"This is a national security issue," wrote the Argonne team leader, Roger Johnston, using the sort of language that would normally set off alarm bells in our security-obsessed culture. Yet his warning has gone unheeded, and the Accuvote-TSX, now manufactured by ES&S [Hagel's old company], will be used in twenty states by more than 26 million voters in the 2012 general election.