Friday, October 14, 2005

Susan Marie Weber profiled in the Desert Sun

Yesterday's Desert Sun paper in Palm Springs featured a profile of Susan Marie Weber, written by columnist Darrell Smith. It's a wonderful tribute to a woman who has inspired me and many others. It is featured below.


Susan Marie Weber did what she always does. She raised her hand and asked a question. Why couldn't she have paper proof that she had voted and for whom?

She could get a receipt at the bank or the hamburger stand, she reasoned, why not at the ballot box?

Good questions, and ones that would land the Palm Desert accountant in the center of the debate on electronic voting.

After the dangling chads and court fights and Supreme Court hearings that were the 2000 presidential election, electronic touch-screen voting was the future and Riverside County - the nation's first county to use electronic touch screen voting machines - was its vanguard.

Paperless, easy, efficient and cheaper, elections officials hailed the benefits for voters and themselves alike.

Now, voting was as easy as pushing a button. What was wrong with that?

We're the government, they said. Trust us.

I'm a voter, Weber said. Listen to me.

This was about her vote and the votes of millions of other Californians.

By the March 2004 election, nearly 6.5 million Californians - more than 40 percent of the state's registered voters - were able to use the touch screens, according to the secretary of state's office.

Weber would later ask a more important question. If there's no paper proof of a voter's choice, how could voters trust an election result, trust that their democracy is working?

The questions went over like a belch in church.

Sometimes convincing people that common sense is, well, common sense, is harder than it sounds. Especially when the critics don't want to hear it.

The critics (read: elections officials and their attorneys) in effect called her a Luddite. She's afraid of change, they said, skeptical of technology.

"When they start calling you names," Weber said, "you know you're on the right track."

She was, and she didn't give up.

"When the government says, 'Trust us,' we say, 'Sure, but we want to verify it ourselves,'" Weber said. "I also had the absolute belief that people are smart and will figure it out."

Five years later, after battling the county and the courts, someone finally listened to the Palm Desert accountant with the tiny voice: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the stroke of a pen.

The bill: Senate Bill 370, signed into law Friday. The result: County elections officials must by June 2006 use voter-verified paper audit trails to conduct a 1 percent hand tally of ballots from e-voting machines.

It's a procedure used since 1965 in California to assure confidence in computer-counted votes; a procedure that touch-screen counties like Riverside couldn't perform because its machines did not produce voter-verified paper trails.

And, it follows a 2004 law that requires electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper audit trail beginning in the 2006 statewide primary.

It sounds pretty arcane, but it's really pretty simple.

Californians will have proof of their vote in their hands and can trust their votes have been recorded and counted accurately.

And Weber is a big reason why.

She filed a federal lawsuit in 2002 to challenge the constitutionality of paperless touch screen machines.

As her cause gathered steam, Weber gained important allies like e-voting watchdogs California Voter Foundation and then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who famously took the state's touch screens off line after a problem-plagued 2004 primary election involving touch-screen voting machines in San Diego County and other counties.

And Weber continued to take on state and county elections officials even after her lawsuit was dismissed by a federal appeals court.

Today, the changes stretch across the e-voting landscape.

Twenty-five states now require a voter-verified paper audit trail on electronic voting machines, according to the California Voter Foundation. Two years ago, none did.

One year ago, California was one of only four states with laws requiring public auditing of election results, according to the foundation. Today there are 12.

"She's passionate about the issue. She has such sincere conviction," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. "She got the ball rolling. It takes a lot of strength and character to challenge the powers that be. She got a lot of people inspired on the issue."

For Weber, it was common sense, she says now. Computers develop glitches and crash and can be hacked, data manipulated. Computers are fallible. So are the humans who operate them.

It's pretty simple, Weber said. The only, best way to preserve the integrity of voters' choices, Weber said, is a ballot voters can hold, a count voters can see.

"Voting is so precious," Weber said. "If you don't have confidence in voting, you don't have confidence in anything."

No comments:

Post a Comment