Private Company Still ‘Controls’ Election Outcome
Secretive company administers almost every last aspect of ‘democratic’ election process
By Christopher Bollyn
CHICAGO, Illinois—The morning after Election Day, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and the vice presidential candidate John Edwards promised the nation that the Democrats would make sure that every vote counts, and that every vote is counted. Later in the day, Kerry and Edwards, however, conceded defeat before some 170,000 to 250,000 provisional ballots from Ohio, which could have changed the outcome of the election, had been counted.
But how were the votes actually counted across the nation on Nov. 2? On Election Day, voters in Cook County, Ill., were among the 60 million Americans who voted with machines made by Election Systems & Software, a secretive company based in Omaha.
ES&S, as it is known, calls itself “the world’s largest and most experienced provider of total election management solutions.” According to the company’s own figures, 42 percent of all registered voters in the United States voted on ES&S equipment on Election Day.
ES&S sells its “end-to-end election management suite of solutions” to replace traditional voting methods and election officials with what it calls “‘one-stop-shop,’ full service election coordination
from start to finish.”
What this means on Election Day is that ES&S, a private company, manages everything about the voting, from voter registration, the printing of ballots, the programming of the voting machines, the counting and tabulation of the votes and the final reporting of the results—for 60 million Americans in 47 states.
Four years after first revealing the flaws inherent in the insecure ES&S electronic voting machines used in Cook County, American Free Press went to the county clerk’s office to observe how ES&S manages the counting of the votes for America’s third largest city, Chicago, and the suburban area around it.
Scott Burnham, spokesman for the county clerk, had informed me that the vote count is open to the public and that press credentials would not be required.
Shortly after arriving, I ran into Burnham and David Orr, the county clerk, in the hallway. Although I had arrived just shortly before the polls closed at 7 p.m., I was the only member of the public or the press around except for a couple of Associated Press (AP) reporters in the far corner of the room.
They were busy setting up their laptop to the ES&S computer in the backroom, which provided them with “direct feed” of the results. I was surprised to see so few people attending such an important event. In France, scores of citizens watch the vote count in each polling station.
While the results were coming in, the AP reporter read a novel while her laptop did the communicating.
When I went to talk to the AP reporter, Burnham quickly appeared and told me to leave. “You should talk to AP,” he said.
“She is AP,”I replied.
“She just works for AP,” he said.
Clearly the subject of AP having direct data feed from the mainframe computer was something Burnham did not want me to discuss.
Dane Placko, a local reporter for the Fox News network,
told AFP that “Fox gets direct feed.”
Any actual counting of the votes by citizens is very rare in the United States except for a few counties in Montana and other states where paper ballots are still hand-counted.
In most counties the ballots are treated as input data to be processed through computer systems controlled by private companies like ES&S.
In Cook County the ballot is inevitably a cluttered punch card with nearly 100 votes. After voting for the president and vice president, a senator and a congressman, the voter has to wade through pages of choices to vote for some 80 local officials from the sanitation board to the state’s general assembly. Every voter had to vote on nearly 80 judges.
LONG & COMPLICATED
Rather than holding separate elections for national and local officials, as is done in most countries, the Cook County ballot is extremely long and complicated. Officials who support electronic voting systems give the complexity of the ballot as the main reason why voting machines are necessary—because it would take too much time to count the votes manually.
After calling and personally visiting ES&S headquarters in Omaha and Chicago, I can say it is a highly secretive company. In August, I visited ES&S company headquarters on John Galt Blvd. in Omaha.
Although the company says it is the largest voting machine company in the United States, they were unable to provide any information about their company or their products. The ownership of the company is a closely guarded secret.
I asked to meet with Todd Urosevich, one of the two brothers that founded the company.
Bob and Todd Urosevich started ES&S as a company called Data Mark in the early 1980s. Today, Bob Urosevich heads Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems, a competitor of ES&S and the second largest U.S. manufacturer of electronic voting machines. Together, the computerized ballot scanners and touch-screen voting machines systems made by ES&S and Diebold recorded some 80 percent of all votes cast in the recent U.S. presidential election.
As ES&S had no media relations person available, and Todd Urosevich was not willing to be interviewed, the company’s chief financial officer Tom O’Brien finally appeared. Clearly displeased with my visit and questions, O’Brien refused to provide any information about the company.
Although I was ill on Election Day, I knew I had to go to the county clerk’s office to observe “counting” of the vote. It is, after all, the only “counting” open to the public. What I saw in Chicago, however, only made me more nauseous.
The only “vote count” the press or public can observe in Chicago is what is projected on screens.
The opening screen read: ES&S Automatic Election Returns, Release 35, Under License to the City of Chicago, Serial No. 0004, Copyright 1987.
Carl Zimmerman, technical supervisor for the clerk’s office, said that the computer that ran the system was in the back—“in the ES&S room,” he said.
At 7 p.m., Jonathan Lin, a worker on the county clerk’s computer staff, came out and turned on the monitors on the 6th floor, where the City of Chicago votes were tallied and displayed. Behind him was Rick Thurman, an ES&S technician, checking the first results.
Thurman seemed surprised when I asked him if he worked for ES&S. He said that the company had about six engineers running the computer in the back room. He then checked himself, saying he had said too much.
Later I asked Lin who was actually operating the computer that was generating the results being shown on the monitors. “ES&S is running the mainframe for all of this,” Lin said, pointing to the television displays.
In the press room in the back I noticed stacks of boxes containing “Votamatic” voting machines and “prepunched” ballots printed by ES&S of Addison, Texas, for the different precincts in Cook County. In the rear hallway behind the pressroom was the ES&S room. Only ES&S personnel
were allowed into the room.
When I poked around in the hallway and peeked into the ES&S room, an armed marshal and ES&S employee quickly appeared. In no condition for a confrontation, I made myself scarce.
I met a couple reporters from CLTV, a local cable channel of WGN. One of the reporters asked about my interest in the Chicago tallies. I said I was interested to see how a private company runs the elections in Chicago.
Seemingly unaware of how ES&S operates elections in Cook County, I explained the basics. “I’ve observed elections across Europe,” I added, “from France and Germany to Serbia and Holland. Everywhere in Europe, voting is done on paper ballots that are counted by the citizens, except Holland.”
Obviously uncomfortable with this discussion, the reporter responded: “I’m glad I’m not in Serbia. I don’t mind if a machine counts the votes.”