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Spinning the "Wheels of Democracy"
by Diane Farsetta
Is it voter outreach and education or slick public relations?
"I can understand there being a desire to get voters familiar with it - but taxpayers are now subsidizing a campaign to increase their comfort level with a boondoggle . . . . Taxpayers are funding a corporate advertising campaign and that's an outrage," Linda Schade, a critic of electronic voting, told the Baltimore Sun.
Schade was commenting on Maryland Votes, a five-year, $1 million voter outreach and education campaign to "familiarize Maryland voters with the electronic voting machines many will use for the first time" in 2004. The effort includes television, billboard, radio, bus, and other advertising; a website; 1.5 million pamphlets and brochures; and hundreds of e-voting machine demonstrations at grocery stores, senior centers, centers of worship and other public places around the state.
Maryland Votes is part of the state's $55.6 million contract with major e-voting company Diebold Election Systems. "We found that people are much more acceptable [sic] about electronic voting if they get to touch the screen beforehand," Diebold spokesperson David Bear told O'Dwyer's PR Daily. Bear, who is identified in press releases as Diebold's media contact, has an email address associated with the PR firm Public Strategies Inc. - a firm he represented during 2003 e-voting discussions with the state of Indiana, and one of two large PR firms currently employed by Diebold Election Systems.
Of course, it makes sense to introduce voters to the new machines before they cast their ballots on Election Day. The Help America Vote Act, which gives states a January 2006 deadline to replace old punch card and lever voting machines, mandates that states educate "voters concerning voting procedures, voting rights and voting technology."
Nicki Trella, Maryland's election reform director, told PR Watch that the Maryland Votes campaign was included as part of the state's contract with Diebold Election Systems in order to take the burden off of local elections officials. (It's worth noting, Diebold hired the Florida-based Compliance Research Group as a subcontractor to run the Maryland campaign.) Under state law, counties must educate their residents about any new voting systems they choose to implement. But state officials felt that the Help America Vote Act requirements were too demanding for already overextended county elections boards. When asked whether the state sought additional safeguards or controls when handing over voter outreach and education duties to a for-profit company, Trella said the Diebold contract included "the normal contractual and quality assurances." She added that "parallel outreach" was being carried out by local and state officials, "above and beyond what the vendor's doing."
Trella took exception to some of the media coverage of Maryland Votes. "The website," she said, "was not in any way a response to what was playing out in the media. . . . This voter education campaign was planned way before; it was not a knee-jerk reaction," to the increasingly negative attention electronic voting and Diebold Election Systems, in particular, were receiving. Trella also pointed out that the state had only hired a communications director to coordinate voter outreach and education efforts in February. And although that position is "recognized as being critical" to Maryland's elections process, it's paid for with federal funds that are only guaranteed through 2005.
What did the Maryland Votes campaign look like to the state's residents? According to the Baltimore Sun, Maryland Votes billboards read: "It's here. Maryland's better way to vote." The website (www.mdvotes.org) contains voter registration forms, an on-line voting machine demonstration and a link to the state Board of Elections website, but the site often seems more promotional than informational.
"The new AccuVote-TS, by Diebold Election Systems, blends the latest voting technology with the traditional ballot system that voters have used for years," reads the second sentence on the Maryland Votes home page. One page still under construction proclaims in large text, "AccuVote-TS Makes Elections Easy, Accurate and Secure." Repeatedly sprinkled throughout the extensive Frequently Asked Questions section is the sentence, "The voting process has never been easier with the state-of-the-art AccuVote-TS voting system."
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Maryland Votes website is the "T.V. Productions" link, which plays a five-minute video news release (VNR). From the accompanying information, the VNR appears to have been produced by Maryland-based "multimedia content producer" Video Production Consulting, and to have aired on Comcast local news. The pseudo news story is filled with images of elderly voters trying a Diebold voting machine and giving glowing testimonials about how straightforward and easy it is to use. One man compares the AccuVote-TS to a casino slot machine.
Maryland is not alone in its e-voting PR campaign. The Help Ohio Vote campaign, as originally envisioned, was a massive 18-month, $15.3 million effort headed by PR giant Burson-Marsteller. It included focus groups, media tours, advertising, in-person machine demonstrations, direct mail, and an "embedded" media program. Unlike Maryland, where one e-voting company will supply almost the entire state, Ohio counties are choosing between three different companies' machines.
But the Help Ohio Vote plans generated controversy, due to the large price tag, the no-bid contract earmarked for a New York-based PR firm, and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's proposed starring role in the TV ads. Blackwell plans to run for governor in 2006, and many have expressed concern that "voter education" spots would essentially be free campaign advertisements. "This $15 million of mostly wasteful expenditures benefits [Blackwell] personally. That is an unacceptable use of tax dollars," one state senator told the Mansfield News Journal. The state legislature first blocked and then reduced the funding for Help Ohio Vote to $5 million.
Voter outreach and education campaigns are becoming a standard part of state contracts with e-voting companies. The Texas-based company Hart InterCivic started that trend. Its website lists six "Voter Education and Outreach Websites that Hart InterCivic has designed in partnership with our eSlate™ Electronic Voting System customers." These customers are Brazos, Harris, Tarrant and Travis Counties in Texas; Orange County, California; and the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Although these websites all contain frequent references to Hart InterCivic's eSlate™ machines, the informational content generally outweighs the product promotion.
That's not to say that the Hart InterCivic websites don't raise a few eyebrows. The Harris Votes! site explains: "Harris County is spending $25,152,830 on the countywide electronic voting project. This price includes not only voting equipment but also long-term support services . . . and a comprehensive voter outreach and education campaign designed by Hart InterCivic and implemented by the Houston office of the international public relations firm Hill and Knowlton."
Harris Votes! was named PR Week's Community Relations Campaign of the Year for 2002. "It has been an honor working with the Harris County Clerk's team and Hart InterCivic on this landmark project. This has been a team effort in every sense, and it's great to receive recognition for a job well done," said Megan Mastal, the head of Hill and Knowlton's Houston office, in a Hart InterCivic press release. In the same release, Hart InterCivic chair David Hart commended Harris County "for undertaking a program of this magnitude."
Hart InterCivic says its voter education and outreach campaigns will "ensure that all voters are confident, competent and excited about the eSlate™ System when they come to the polls." The campaigns incorporate "a wide range of integrated outreach and communication mechanisms, including flyers, videos, visual displays, Internet sources, and public service and paid commercial announcements." Harris Votes! also included billboards which read, "The Wheels of Democracy are Turning . . . eSlate. Harris County's New Electronic Voting System." Many of Hart InterCivic's outreach materials are available in different languages, including a TV ad. The English version begins: "The eSlate™ electronic voting system is accurate, accessible and easy to learn." (Harris Votes! used Hart InterCivic's stock TV ad; Orange County did the same, with a local official doing the voice-over and some additional outdoors scenes added.)
Earlier this year, television ads and video news releases promoting the new Medicare law were identified as possible violations of restrictions on the use of federal funds for "publicity or propaganda purposes." In a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General, nine members of Congress questioned whether the production of these materials "represent an appropriate use of taxpayers' money" and called for "a careful examination" of the matter. "The purpose of public education campaigns should be to inform and to educate, not to manipulate," they wrote. In May, the General Accounting Office ruled that the Medicare VNRs were "covert as to source" - that is, presented as news without any disclosure of the federal funding behind them - and, as such, violated the law.
While the particulars of the electronic voting and Medicare "public education" campaigns are quite different, the broader questions are the same. Where is the line between e-voting companies' product promotion and damage control, and genuine voter education and outreach? Who makes the call?
Kevin Kennedy, the executive director of Wisconsin's state elections board, told PR Watch that the states had pretty much been left to set their own goals and guidelines. The Help America Vote Act "doesn't provide much direction" for comprehensive voter outreach and education activities - actually, it doesn't require them at all - but many states saw the new mandates and funding as "a good opportunity" to launch such initiatives, he said. Kennedy explained Wisconsin's decision to stay away from "branded initiatives" like Harris Votes! and Maryland Votes by pointing out that the federally mandated infrastructure changes alone require "lots of resources." The question for state officials, according to Kennedy, then became: "What is the most efficacious use of our [remaining] resources?"
That's not to say that there aren't pressures on state elections officials to mount massive outreach campaigns. "The media companies are lining up," Kennedy said. And the electronic voting machine manufacturers, which he admitted "do have some image issues," tell state officials purchasing their equipment that "we'll be there to make sure your voters are informed."
"People should make informed decisions," agreed Kennedy. But are federal funds appropriated under the Help America Vote Act going towards voter outreach and education or towards "corporate advertising"? It's a question that should be answered soon, for the wheels of democracy are turning.