By Mike and Thad
We’ve been hearing rumors the past few weeks that the LA Times was looking into questions regarding the ownership structure of Sequoia Voting Systems, especially that the company was linked to foreign investors. The central claim in the LA Times story was:
Sequoia, founded in Jamestown, N.Y., in the late 1890s, was acquired in March 2005 by Smartmatic Corp., a private company owned by Venezuelan investors through a series of holding companies based in Europe and the Caribbean. Sequoia’s previous owner was the British firm De La Rue, best known for printing currencies for dozens of foreign governments.
Smartmatic emerged from obscurity the year before when it won a $100-million contract to supply touch-screen voting machines for an ultimately unsuccessful recall effort against Chavez in 2004.
For folks who followed the Illinios primary earlier this year, these questions might ring some bells.
One of the larger questions this raises is something that the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project discovered in early research following the 2000 election, when we tried to study the state of election administration finance and the status of the voting technology industry. As the VTP wrote in the 2001 report, the most significant result of this research was that we could find little information on either how elections are financed in the United States, how much was being spent on election administration, and how the voting technology industry operates.
Regardless of whether or not foreign ownership of voting technology companies is problematic, the broader problem is a lack of transparency throughout the vendor-adminstrator relationship. Many people want to know what companies are supplying what components of the election administration process–at what cost–and basic information about those companies. What we really need is for states and the federal government to require strong and public disclosure, from companies that design, manufacture, sell, and repair voting technology–as well as from those who sell election administration materials and services–of their ownership structure, related financial information, and information about their contracts with jurisdictions in the state. This information should be readily available to the public in order to build confidence in the election administration process in the United States. This information would be invaluable for researchers, and it would be of great utility for election officials, so that they could research what other jurisdictions are paying for services or other acquisitions. It would be ideal if a clearinghouse of this information were created, so that the public could quickly and easily find the information they need, about all of the business interests that are involved in the process of running elections in the U.S.
This transparency should extend throughout the elections process. The public wants more and better information about the voting machine certification process, the voter registration system design process, the problems that arise in elections with voting technologies, and the extent to which states and localities are reliant on contractors and vendors to conduct the basic aspects of election administration. It is the lack of transparency that fuels rumors, innuendo, and conspiracies about the elections process. Information is the key to building confidence.