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Congressional briefings are typically dull affairs, usually with only a few dozen participants, but it was standing room only in a House Judiciary Committee hearing room on April 21, when nine members of Congress, their staff and 200 activists gathered to address the present crisis in US democracy: voter suppression and the manipulation of US elections.
In 2016 - the first presidential election since the US Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act - a slew of new malicious laws and tactics are disenfranchising millions of Americans, even as the private control of US vote-counting technology has come under renewed scrutiny in a primary season marked by allegations of fraud and election rigging.
This high-stakes, emotionally charged election cycle has seen widespread closure of polling locations, unprecedented voter roll purges, voting machine failures and extreme waiting lines that cause countless voters to turn away without having cast a ballot. Many have been given "provisional" ballots that are simply not counted. Irregularities in Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New York have engendered intraparty accusations and lawsuits, exposing a dysfunctional and often undemocratic election process.
The nine members of Congress who spoke, all from predominantly minority districts, loudly condemned the "new Jim Crow" laws that have been forced on over half the states in the US, and which the lawmakers believe were designed to deliberately suppress voters in their districts, particularly people of color, the poor, the elderly and students.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) brought much needed attention to a crucial aspect of the election crisis: the aging, hackable voting technology used nationwide. Johnson cited the fact that the vote-counting software in these machines is still programmed by a cadre of private companies on proprietary software inaccessible to elections officials and the public.
Johnson touched on the concerns of both voters and candidates in this election season when he discussed the well-known vulnerability of these voting systems to internal error, fraud and outsider hacking -- claims supported by top computer scientists and cybersecurity experts from MIT, Princeton, the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Labs and many others whose warnings have largely been unheeded.
The partisan control of voting technology has been a longstanding concern of Prof. Robert Fitrakis, Ph.D. and J.D., who testified on the widely contested 2000 election, which was marked by voter suppression of people of color, and on his involvement as a lawyer in contesting the 2004 elections, in which the computer architecture of election night was in the hands of far-right-wing partisan companies and election officials.
"The most dangerous thing in our democracy right now is the fact that partisan, for-profit corporations using secret proprietary software provide the voting hardware and the software to register us to vote, count our votes and report election results," Fitrakis said.
"I want to know why these private companies who are not using open-source software are counting our votes, registering our votes and then doing the central tabulation.”
"We must emphatically ask the politicians that brought us these new Jim Crow laws to show us the fraud," stated Joel Segal, legislative director of the National Election Defense Coalition and a former staff member for Representative Conyers.
He cited a Washington Post report showing that a comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation found only 31 credible incidents of so-called "voter fraud" out of 1 billion ballots cast in the United States.
The keynote presenter, Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and leader of the Moral Mondays protest movement, described the avalanche of voter suppression laws unleashed in North Carolina immediately after the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Barber also helped lead the Democracy Awakening protests that took place outside Congress on April 18, and saw civil rights organizations, unions, social justice groups and environmentalists all standing together to demand the restoration of voting rights and election campaign finance safeguards.
This "inside-outside strategy" embodied in twin actions -- focusing on official congressional actions and grassroots direct action -- is the strategy that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists employed to transform the political landscape a generation ago. To save democracy, it's important to both take to the streets and take to the Hill.
Many members of Congress articulated the need to translate widespread outrage about election manipulation into an actionable voting rights agenda that protects the coming general election, and all future elections.
It is clear that accomplishing that goal will require a political grassroots movement similar to the suffrage and civil rights movements that expanded the vote franchise in the last century.
Conyers noted with pleasure that the crowd at the hearing was marked by racial diversity, which he said would be needed to support a broad-based movement to restore democracy to US elections.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) brought much needed attention to a crucial aspect of the election crisis: the aging, hackable voting technology used nationwide.
ALWAYS someone crying about 'voter suppression'
My bill, the Verifying Optimal Tools for Elections Act of 2016, otherwise known as the VOTE Act, would allocate millions of dollars to assist States in replacing these aging voting machine dinosaurs. The VOTE Act would also allocate millions of dollars in grants to assist in developing new technologies to assure accuracy in the voting process, to protect voting machine source codes from being hacked, and to train election officials. The aim of the VOTE Act is simple: the safeguarding of elections by ensuring the very integrity of the voting process, while protecting access to the ballot box.
Ole Hank ain't very credible.
According to a study by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice: “43 states will use electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old, perilously close to the end of most systems’ expected lifespan. Old voting equipment increases the risk of failures and crashes — which can lead to long lines and lost votes on Election Day — and problems only get worse the longer we wait."