Alaska editorial: Elections shouldn't be shrouded in secrecy

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2006

The following editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

The state Division of Elections has again refused the Alaska Democratic Party's request for database files of the 2004 general election results. Division director Whitney Brewster last week cited security concerns and her obligation to protect the election process as reasons for the refusal, even though the maker of the state's electronic voting system, Diebold Elections Systems, waived any proprietary claims and said the state was free to do what it needed to do to answer the Democrats' requests.

Ms. Brewster, however, determined the state would not release the database files because the state security office advised her "the release of the database, the database backup file, and the audit files present a significant security risk to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the Election System and information."

The Democrats aren't buying it, nor should they.

They want the database files, including employee user IDs and audit logs, to resolve questions about how the 2004 results were tallied and why there were discrepancies in some vote totals. They have argued that encrypted codes and phone numbers for voting-results transmissions can be deleted before release of the files, while user IDs and audit logs are public records. Certainly, the IDs could be changed for future use to ensure security.

Alaskans have the right to know for sure that both the system and its operators worked as they should. Discrepancies may well be, as the division maintains, due to benign operator errors. And no one has suggested that the results of any race in 2004 would be changed.

But any problems need to be resolved, the sooner the better. And they need to be resolved in the open. User IDs and audit logs should be part of the public record in a matter of elections. Alaskans need to know who did what and when in tabulating election results.

Ms. Whitney argues the 2004 election has been well-vetted. She repeats that the Democrats are welcome to any election materials that do not jeopardize security. She points out that Alaskans would be outraged if she put the state's election process at any risk by releasing database files to any outside group.

She has an argument, but it's not persuasive.

First, Diebold's track record is not pure as the driven snow. Other states have encountered problems with its systems. That raises doubts. And even slight doubts about Alaska's elections system should be put to rest.

Second, it's not clear how the information the Democrats are seeking will compromise that state's election system. Couldn't encryptions and phone numbers be changed? Even if this presents technical problems, any questions about how elections are handled must be resolved no matter how deep into databases Alaska must go.

Third, Alaskans need clear definitions of what constitutes a public record, and that clarity should cover the records and systems of the electronic age. And we need clearer definitions of what are exempt from public record disclosures. It's easy to understand the need to guard information in criminal investigations or other matters of public safety - but where does an election system fit in?

Alaskans need this settled.

Essentially, the Division of Elections is saying "trust us." Alaskans do. But the Democrats have raised enough questions and Diebold has made enough headlines to evoke that old Ronald Reagan rule - "Trust, but verify."

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