As voters go to the poll in Alabama today in a special Senate election that has garnered national attention, it is far from clear that their choices will actually count as the state Supreme Court at the last minute has given the election commission permission to destroy the most important record of their ballot right after the election, a digital image of the ballot.
That matters because Alabama historically has written laws and pulled dirty tricks – like posting a Sheriff at polls where minorities vote – to help white men win elections and limit minorities access to the polls.
“With Alabama’s opaque election process,” reports Who.What.Why.org, “we may never be certain that the results were accurate.”
Start with the fact that Alabama has a terrible record of voter suppression, a history of questionable handling of election results and earlier this year was identified as one of 21 states subject to computer hacking of the voting machines and results.
There was a lawsuit to force Alabama to preserve the digital image of the ballots, which is what is actually used for the vote count. There are paper ballots but they are just scanned and then locked away, while the digital images become the record that matters.
1. #DougJones. A Repub., a Dem., an Independent, & a minister have filed a LAWSUIT to compel ALABAMA SOS John Merrill to PRESERVE the DIGITAL BALLOT IMAGES that r generated automatically by AL's VOTING MACHINES. The images can help verify the machine tally https://t.co/hZULebLdAL pic.twitter.com/WdwFAvmpwg
— Jennifer Cohn (@jennycohn1) December 8, 2017
A Montgomery County circuit court judge earlier this week ordered the digital images be maintained. Then the state took their objection to a Supreme Court judge, who late yesterday agreed with them.
The judge wrote in his decision that “After hearing arguments and reviewing the filings,” according to AL.com, “it appears that Plaintiffs and similarly situated voters would suffer irreparable and immediate harm if digital ballot images are not preserved.”
The Supreme Court judge scheduled the next hearing on the matter for December 21, which will be long after the state has destroyed the digital ballot images.
There are federal laws that say all voting records must be preserved, but the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that didn’t apply to digital images and agreed with the Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill that it could delete the digital records immediately after the election.
So if there are paper ballots, why not just use those if there is a recount.
First, a recount of paper ballots involves getting a court order and then is enormously expensive. Election commissions often fight against recounts because they may cause them embarrassment. There also is a history of political parties preferring not to do recounts, which is why efforts to do so bring a barrage of criticism.
There is no additional cost to the state to keep the digital ballot images for at least six months, as the federal law requires of all election materials. Some states that use similar “optical voting systems” even make the digital images public.
Alabama sets the voting machines to destroy the digital images right after the election.
Merrill says that under state law they are not allowed to keep the digital images, and to change that would require a modification of the states legal code.
Bev Harris, the founder of Black Box Voting, a non-partisan group that works to ensure election integrity, says there is a good reason to be concerned about this election.
“As states have moved away from the maligned touchscreen systems,” says Harris, “it has become common practice for election authorities to enact ‘very subtle legal changes’ to obfuscate election records from the public,” which she calls “corruption protection procedures.”
Priscilla Duncan, an attorney for the four Alabama voters who filed the suit to force the state to preserve the digital images, said the state’s arguments were”spurious” and misleading.
“The fact that none of their arguments makes any sense just makes you wonder what’s really at stake here,” says Duncan. “These machines are hack-able…That’s what worried us.”
“It’s all about transparency,” adds Duncan. “It’s like saying, ‘well, we don’t need a car because we have a horse and buggy.'”
Alabama is a red as a red state can get. The Republicans are in control from the top down, in the legislature and after years of appointments, in the courts.
Alabama's ballot design has also been called into question. The ballot lets you select 2 ways to vote; if both options are selected, the machine might read it as an "overvote" — in which case it wouldn't be counted.
To resolve this, the digital & paper ballot are needed.
— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) December 12, 2017
If we had a U.S. Department of Justice that could be trusted, they would be closely monitoring what is happening in today’s important election, but instead, we have the Trump administration, which if anything is in cahoots with the officials in Alabama.
If Roy Moore wins today, despite the charges against him and his dismal record on key issues, he will have the questionable ethics of the Alabama officials to thank even more than the voters of his state.
This is of special concern because it appears that Russian or other foreign hackers have taken the unusual step of going after this local election. Once again, Trump’s friends have his back, and that is bad news for the rest of us.
Why @MooreSenate have the Russians taken such an interest in the Alabama race?? Following Russian politics my whole life I have never seen the Kremlin interested in a local race.. Lots of troll activity and bot accounts too.. Another ???????? Twitter op #NoMoore pic.twitter.com/ZvfuizzRyd
— Olga_Lautman NYC ✨ (@olgaNYC1211) December 11, 2017