EDITORIAL: Are we transparent yet?

THE NEWS FROM IOWA this week sounded a lot like a re-staging of last November’s Columbia County early-voting melodrama. The Iowa cast was larger but both productions left the political theater audience wondering whodunit.

Who or what was eating our ballots? In both cases early reports indicated that all was going well with new technology that promised to make the process of voting more accessible and transparent. That word “transparent” has become a required part of the modern political vocabulary. It’s shorthand for: “We’re so honest, we show you everything we’re doing.” The Iowa Democratic caucus system relied on a new “smart-phone app,” which party officials described as quite transparent. But it wasn’t transparent at all. It just didn’t work right.

The situation here was different in what seemed like a simple problem with ballots that were incorrectly printed. That could have been easily remedied. It was only when unofficial results were not available on the day after Election Day and for some time thereafter that the scope of the disruption became clear… but not exactly transparent.

Neither Columbia County nor Iowa Democrats have blamed the disruptions in their voting systems on some sort of hacking by other nations or trolls of unknown origin. But problems like the incidents at the early vote polling station in Valatie last November are bound to make people jittery about whether the county has the technology and the trained personnel to record all votes properly in the series of elections in the busy political year ahead.

County residents can vote in four elections (five if you live in a village) from now through the general election November 3. The presidential primary is less than three months away and the state and federal legislative primaries are in June. If our voting system still has bugs–and it undoubtedly does–the time to find out about them is now.

The officials responsible for assuring elections are fair and that voting goes smoothly are the county’s two elections commissioners, one Democrat and one Republican. They are nominated by their respective parties and appointed by the county Board of Supervisors. They serve two-year terms. The Board of Supervisors, which is controlled by the GOP, has already appointed the Republican commissioner for the current term. But the board rejected the Democrats’ first nominee, incumbent Commissioner Virginia Martin.

Because a party may not resubmit the name of a nominee for election commissioner, the Democrats have now nominated a new candidate, Ken Dow, a Chatham lawyer and a former county election commissioner before the county Board of Elections was doing much with computers.

Mr. Dow knows election law and has a deep understanding of how local and county government work. It seems likely he has no illusions about the stresses of the job or the need for the type of cooperation it takes to keep partisan politics out of the election process, as strange as that may sound.

What’s not clear is how much either Mr. Dow or current Republican Election Commissioner Kelly Miller-Simmons knows about the technology of elections. That might work in their favor if they acknowledge what they don’t understand. That type of humility will allow them to be skeptical about promises of qualities like transparency and insist on knowing the extent to which our voting systems are reliable and secure from manipulation.

As consumers we trust our devices will deliver what their makers promise. Then we adjust to a lesser, kind-of-works standard. We hope the vehicle we drive will work as advertised, knowing that sometimes it won’t; we hope we aren’t taking a prescription drug that kills us before the cure takes effect. We want easy secure voting but voting in this era depends on technology that’s as prone to crack-ups as every other appliance we own.

And yet as citizens we have a responsibility to vote and to take every reasonable step to ensure our votes are counted, with the results quickly and completely disclosed. The system that makes this possible is more important than all our other appliances because it’s the one that ensures our freedom.

Ken Dow understands this and he should be appointed the Democratic commissioner of elections.

In addition to his appointment, the Board of Supervisors should set aside funds to hire outside independent consultants to evaluate the county’s entire election process and the hardware and software being used. Accompanying that should be a resolution to make the consultants’ findings public. Doing any less would risk making Columbia County the Iowa of the East.

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