Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Deck Zero

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A couple of weeks ago I got a chance to do my duty for democracy at the Humboldt County Elections Office. I was working a scanner with Kevin Collins -- Ettersburg resident, commercial fisherman, old-school frizzy-bearded Humboldt County visionary. Collins was keeping logs, I was operating the computer, Humboldt County Clerk-Recorder Carolyn Crnich and other elections employees lurked about, bringing us stacks of ballots from the Nov. 4 election and spelling us during our lunch breaks.

This was the work of the Humboldt Transparency Project, which had been going on for several weeks before I dropped in one afternoon. The idea of the project, which, after a June test-run, got going in earnest with this election, is to scan every ballot cast in Humboldt County and make them freely available on the Web for all to peruse. Let 100 recounts bloom. Collins dreamed up the idea a few years ago, in the wake of the horrors of the 2000 Florida presidential election. Crnich endorsed it and found funding to make it happen. Local software developer Mitch Trachtenberg built the infrastructure and wrote a program that would help DIY recounters examine election results from the comfort of their own homes. Other local volunteers, notably Parke Bostrom and Tom Pinto, chipped in.

As everyone knows by now, the Transparency Project drew instant dividends. All that scanning was completed the weekend after Thanksgiving, and it revealed that there was a problem. The Transparency Project had scanned about 220 more ballots than had been recorded by the official Diebold tabulating software that the county has been using for ages. And it wasn't the ragtag Humboldt volunteers that had fucked up. It was Diebold. And it was "Premier," which is what Diebold renamed itself after its old name became synonymous with incompetence and scandal.

Crnich tracked down the missing ballots after the discrepancy came to light last week, and held a press conference. It turns out that there is a very longstanding glitch -- at least four years old, probably more -- in the version of Premier's Global Election Management System (GEMS) tabulating software used by Humboldt County. To make a long story short, it turns out that the system can unpredictably delete the first batch of votes run through it -- the ominously named "Deck Zero," in Diebold parlance. Absentee ballots, provisional ballots and ballots from vote-by-mail precincts each have their "Deck Zero." (Votes cast at a polling place on Election Day are tabulated seperately.)

During the normal course of operations, it turns out, Deck Zero can disappear without a trace. And so it was this time with absentee ballots from Eureka precinct 1E-45, which takes in Lundbar Hills, the municipal golf course and parts of outer Henderson Center. They were run through first among absentee ballots -- they became Deck Zero -- and they were dropped entirely from the official results certified by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Thanksgiving week.

No one in the California Secretary of State's office -- the state agency charged with conducting elections -- knew anything about the Deck Zero problem. Last year the agency conducted a "top-to-bottom" review of elections equipment used throughout the state, with an eye to uncovering all potential problems. Deck Zero never came up.

Yet it turns out that Diebold/Premier has known about the Deck Zero glitch since at least 2004, and in a scattershot way has advised users of its equipment about how to cope with the problem. Wired News, which has jumped all over this issue, got hold of an e-mail from that year which offered election managers a workaround. It suggested that people should run through a fake or empty batch of ballots first, and then manually delete them. Make sure Deck Zero is a fake deck. And it turns out election managers in other California counties have been doing this little pas de deux for some time, as had Humboldt County, previously. But the problem with Diebold's brilliant solution is that -- as in Humboldt County -- people move around, the new person doesn't get the four-year-old memo.

The word "hack" has many meanings in the world of software development. Sometimes it refers to a stupid, ugly, cumbersome workaround, employed as a lazy alternative to actually fixing the problem. This was that kind of hack. It's equivalent to an automobile company telling its unhappy customers that the thing should start if you first whack the engine with the crowbar a couple of times. The fact that Diebold/Premier let it stand for over four years, potentially undermining the first principle of American democracy, is an absolute outrage. These people should be shunned. Maybe indicted.

Hooray for the Humboldt Transparency Project -- true American heroes. For more, visit humtp.com.

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