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October 25th, 2003:

Texans for True Mobility and anonymity

This is hard for me to comprehend.

[Ed Wulfe, the Houston developer who heads Citizens for Public Transportation, the pro-rail political action committee] said Texans for True Mobility’s refusal to reveal its backers demonstrated the organization’s “contempt for voters.” Wulfe further said the organization is running ads based on the “misleading information conjured up by Mr. Culberson” and should pull them off the air.

[Chris Begala, spokesman for Texans for True Mobility] said the campaign had no plans to do so and called Wulfe’s demands “absolutely ludicrous.”

The backers of Texans for True Mobility did not wish to reveal themselves to the public, Begala said, because “they are scared of (retaliation from) very powerful entities affecting their ability to live and work in this community.”

There’s a lot of anonymous bloggers out there, and I respect their reasons for doing so. Hell, there are times when I wish I’d chosen to use a nom de blog. I started writing this post as a snarky attack on the TTM supporters who refuse to make themselves known, but I can’t quite do it without attacking the principle of anonymity in political discourse, and that’s not a step I’m prepared to take.

That said, I have a hard time taking the TTM members’ stated reason for wanting anonymity seriously. We’re not talking about lowly proles who are worried about being fired or evicted for being troublemakers. We’re talking about people who have the wherewithal to make contributions, very likely large contributions, to a political action committee. People like this have money, power, and connections. They are, in short, very powerful entities themselves, and they would very much be not without recourse if there were retaliation against them for their contributions. What are they really afraid of? If it’s the idea of being associated with this anti-transit group, then maybe they should think about why it engenders such shame in them.

There’s another point to consider here, which is that we just have Chris Begala’s word for it that it really is individuals who are balking at having their names released and not corporations. I’ll say it again: the notion that there’s a First Amendment right for corporations to make anonymous campaign contributions is ludicrous on its face.

Finally, as Rick Casey notes, the pro-rail side has no such compunctions about being publicly known, and as I noted before, the fact that TTM is exploiting a legal loophole to be anonymous seriously undercuts any moral force they may have to their choice. If these guys want to be players, they ought to have the guts to appear in the scorecard.

Houston’s electronic voting machines

Harris County has had electronic voting machines for some time now. Not the crappy Diebold machines, but that doesn’t mean that people haven’t been voicing concerns about them since before their adoption. Recent events have not done anything to change skeptics’ minds.

Birnberg said some voters don’t trust the machines because there is no way to prove to them that the vote counts are accurate and confidential.

“If you have ever hooked up a computer, you know they come with glitches,” he said.

In the 2002 election, about 25 local Democratic voters complained that they used eSlate to select a “straight party” vote for every Democrat on the ballot, only to find on the summary screen that the machine had not recorded a vote for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk, Birnberg said. The voters were able to go back and mark a vote for Kirk before pressing the “cast ballot” button, but suspicion was born.

Election workers impounded the eSlates in question, checked them and found no sign of a technical problem, Kaufman said.

She said the voters may have been confused by campaign literature urging them to vote for Kirk and all other Democratic candidates. Choosing the “straight party” option and then marking a single candidate might make the machine “de-select” that candidate.

Birnberg surmises that voters accidentally pressed a different sequence of buttons that somehow canceled some of their votes, meaning the machines — not the voters — made a mistake.

The Democratic chairman acknowledged that because of the Florida voting debacle and more recent controversies such as the drawing of new boundaries for U.S. House districts in Texas, Democrats across the nation are on edge about voting systems chosen by GOP election officials.

In contrast, Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said voters seem satisfied with eSlate and that he has heard no complaints.

I suppose when you’re winning all the elections it’s easier to feel comfortable with the equipment. Be that as it may, there are nonpartisan questions as well.

“The burden is not on me to say it is flawed. The burden on them is to prove it is safe and they have not done that,” Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach said of electronic voting system manufacturers, including eSlate’s.

Election officials test voting machines to see if they have recorded votes correctly, but Wallach said the machines can be programmed to report they have worked correctly when in fact they have not. So when local officials said they have found no evidence of tampering or error, that is not evidence that such a thing never took place.

Like some of his counterparts at other colleges, Wallach says the best voting system would use machines like eSlate only as sophisticated printers that produce paper ballots, which would then be tabulated by a computerized “optical scanner” like the ones used to produce standardized academic test scores. Creating a “paper trail” would increase voters’ confidence that their selections are recorded correctly and provide an independent backup record for all votes, Wallach said.

Full disclosure: Dan’s a good friend of mine. He’s also absolutely right, and I think his quote about the eSlate machines should be the mantra of every skeptic across the country. All they have to do is make their code available to outside experts. I have no sympathy to their wailing about their competitors possibly seeing it. This is too important for that.

Those pesky EPA rules

I found out about this through editorials: The Double Secret Energy Bill, which the Republicans in Congress are working on and the rest of us proles will only learn about 48 hours before it’s up for a vote, contains a provision that would give nonattainment areas, such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, another two years to get in shape. One can argue the merits or demerits of such an idea, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have known about them in order to argue them, instead of finding out about it by accident? Rep. Joe Barton is the culprit here, and he gets taken to task by the WaPo and the DMN. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who unlike Barton actually represents Dallas, also chastises him. Not fully related, but still amusing and worthwhile, is this Toles cartoon.