You’ll seldom hear a more vigorous defense of a state-run information system than the one mounted by election officials when voters challenge the legitimacy of an election. So it was earlier this week in the Nevada Assembly committee that vets election bills, where a group called the Citizen Task Force for Voters Rights showed up to promote AB209.
The bill would require the counties to establish an audit trail for each process involved in conducting an election. Voter registrars from across the state stepped up to protest the cost of implementing the measure, and to reassure lawmakers that their current practices are solid. Clark County’s Joe Gloria, as designated spokesman for his colleagues, touted their performance, noting that Nevada has received national recognition for election integrity.
The problem, says the task force, is that election departments are their own auditors. They investigate any reported irregularities, and not surprisingly, they find no fault in their own system. This wouldn’t fly for casinos or banks, and the task force wants Nevada’s elections subjected to external audits by fraud examiners, same as other high-stakes sectors.
Citizen Task Force for Voters Rights started as a group of voters seeking answers after a phantom candidate took 22.18 percent of the votes in a 2014 Republican primary contest. A man named Mike Monroe had captured 5,392 votes in Congressional District 4 without conducting a campaign. He had no financial backers, and never made appearances or walked neighborhoods. Their search for Monroe turned up no registered voter who knew him or voted for him. His supposed address was a vacant building.
Monroe’s voter turnout was all the more astonishing because his two opponents, then-state legislator Crescent Hardy and Las Vegas activist Niger Innis, conducted energetic campaigns and generated significant press coverage. Typically, anemic candidates facing better-known names would capture between 2 and 7 percent, according to task force research.
Since that election, task force members say they’ve devoted hundreds of hours to investigating election procedures in the counties encompassed by CD 4. They’ve reviewed materials, interviewed people who’ve worked at the polls, and researched the ways elections can be compromised.
They’ve compiled a list of election system vulnerabilities starting with the absence of audit trails and chain of custody records. Add weak voting machine security, training deficiencies, insufficient background checks, and undisciplined transportation procedures. The list also includes “failure to create a security culture.”
Some of the task force claims have years’ worth of anecdotal support from observers and polling place workers.
Election managers are passionate about their work, and nobody suggests they don’t take their task seriously. In the days since the AB209 hearing, two election officials have offered informal assessments of Nevada’s election system security. One described it as “bulletproof” and the other supports the assertion that it’s impervious to criminal interference.
To a reporter who’s covered voting security issues for more than a decade, they seem to be in denial. It was somewhat understandable in 2004, when electronic information management was still evolving. In 2015, they appear willfully blind to reality. No system is bulletproof. Sony wasn’t bulletproof. Athem Blue Cross, J.P. Morgan, and the U.S. Defense Department were not bulletproof. All of those entities spend millions more on security than budget-constrained Nevada election departments.
Consider also our reliance on minimally-trained election day volunteers, and the central role of the much-maligned Seqouia voting machines. It’s unnerving, even insulting, to expect intelligent taxpayers to believe that nothing can possibly go wrong.
Some lawmakers on the Assembly committee mirror the official demeanor, making it clear they favor blind reliance on the system over weighing thoughtful criticism from skeptical voters. Those legislators also reflect the tendency of election managers to blame questionable occurrences on the voters.
“Weird things happen (in primary elections),” said one Assemblyman, adding that primary voters are inclined to cast irrational votes.
The Citizen Task Force may struggle to get a second hearing.