Voting Machine Makers Claim The Names Of The Entities That Own Them Are Trade Secrets

from the yeah-this-makes-you-all-look-way-less-shady dept

Recently, the North Carolina State Board of Elections asked suppliers of electronic voting machines a simple question: who owns you? (h/t Annemarie Bridy)

On June 14, 2019, the State Board of Elections requested that your companies disclose any owners or shareholders with a 5% or greater interest or share in each of the vendor’s company, any subsidiary company, of the vendor, and the vendor’s parent company.

This seems like very basic information -- information the Board should know and should be able to pass on to the general public. After all, these are the makers of devices used by the public while electing their representatives. They should know who's running these companies and who their majority stakeholders are. If something goes wrong (and something always does), they should know who's ultimately responsible for the latest debacle.

It's not like the state was asking the manufacturers to cough up code and machine schematics. All it wanted to know is the people behind the company nameplates. But the responses the board received indicate voting system manufacturers believe releasing any info about their companies' compositions will somehow compromise their market advantage.

Hart Intercivic said letting the public know that the company is owned by H.I.G. Hart, LLC and Gregg L. Burt is a fact that would devalue the company if it were made public.

Hart InterCivic, a corporation that derives independent actual value from this information not being generally known or readily ascertainable and makes reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of this information, requests that it be designated as a trade secret pursuant to G.S. § 132-1.2(1)d. and G.S. § 66-152(3).

Election Systems & Software (ES&S) said basically the same thing, claiming this information is "proprietary and confidential information:"

The following individuals and/or entities own 5% or more of the shares of Government Systems, Software & Services, Inc.:

McCarthy Group, LLC
Tom Burt
Tom O'Brien

Clear Ballot also claimed its list of owners was a trade secret:

Hello, per your request please see below for a list of our shareholders with a 5% or greater share of Clear Ballot Group, Inc. We have no other parent companies or subsidiaries:

1. Larry Moore
2. Tim Halvorsen
3. Steven Papa
4. Raging Capital Opportunity Fund V, LLC

Even this minimal amount of transparency had to be extracted at Board-point. While it's true private companies such as these are under no obligation to inform the public about the details of their ownership, they're all involved with providing goods and services to government agencies. Government agencies hooking up with private companies that treat ownership details as trade secrets isn't a good idea -- not when the government has certain transparency obligations.

Even with the release of these details, there's still plenty of secrecy to go around. Election security advocate Lynn Berstein says the ownership of voting machine companies is a deliberate, multi-layered mess designed to obscure who's running these shops -- and to possibly hide a bunch of stuff that looks like corruption, fraud, or general financial malfeasance.

One of ES&S's subsidiaries (and there are at least 39 of those) -- Meritage Homes Corp. -- shuffled some securities ownership the same day the North Carolina election board asked it to provide information about the company's ownership. Maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe ES&S was offloading a politically-inconvenient owner. Whatever the case is, it certainly doesn't look good.

The government can't do everything itself. It will need vendors to supply goods and services. But these vendors need to operate under the same transparency the government is forced to, if they want to secure these lucrative contracts. Voters aren't given a choice in voting machine providers. They're stuck with whatever their government gives them. But when the government actually decides to perform a little vetting, the makes of the machines trusted to deliver accurate vote counts want to hide behind trade secret exceptions to prevent the public -- and their elected officials -- from knowing exactly who they're dealing with when they head into the voting booth.

Given the abhorrent track record of so many voting machine companies, it's no surprise they're extremely reluctant to share any details with the voting public. But that doesn't make them right. It just makes them a little bit more evil.

Filed Under: elections, north carolina, trade secrets, transparency, voting machines


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  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 9:25am

    In math, two negatives make a positive, does it here?

    "Hart InterCivic, a corporation that derives independent actual value from this information not being generally known or readily ascertainable and makes reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of this information, requests that it be designated as a trade secret pursuant to G.S. § 132-1.2(1)d. and G.S. § 66-152(3)."

    The only way I can conceive of this being true is that their markets would be negatively impacted if their potential customers are aware of who the true owners are. By hiding the truth, those customers aren't turned away.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 9:34am

    What could the reason be?

    Maybe that the companies are owned by relatives of the very politicians being voted on?

    Now that would make for some interesting lawsuits by the "losing" party...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 10 Jul 2019 @ 10:57am

    Voting is fundamental to democracy. It
    should not be a for-profit endeavor.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2019 @ 10:59am

    answer here

    simple answer: the KGB owns them. That's why it's sooooo secret. :p

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    lucidrenegade (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 11:03am

    I was expecting to see Vladimir V. Putin on every one of those lists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 11:36am

    Vote By Mail

    This entire mess was predicted by many of us living in Oregon. Where we vote by mail, btw.

    When Da Shrub picked off the election by chads hanging in the balance how did the GOP respond? Billions to support switching from voting with punch card ballots. From a system that produced a small percentage of possible mistakes to a collection of DOS boxes that were easily hacked and(!!) left no paper trail. A bonus for the GOP, voter suppression collides with vote changing.

    This is the opposite end of Congress legislating the limitation of technology. And it went as well as the V-chip. Lots of government cash, tossed to friends of friends, and others of dubious intent.

    Face it. Technology is the bane of American government. They rarely understand it, and their solutions are hamfisted, and almost unerringly wrong. They would probably do better if they resorted to deciding these issues with coin tosses. That way there is a chance of the correct outcome.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2019 @ 11:38am

    Re:

    He's not stupid. That's what secret-beneficiary trusts (located somewhere other than Russia) are for.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2019 @ 11:53am

    Re:

    Vladimir V. Putin

    That's one for the "Unlikely court case titles" list

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    ECA (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 12:04pm

    Publc design on a private corp?

    Shouldnt happen..
    Its supposed to be Open and honest..

    Also, as to hacking..
    ITS NOT HARD TO FIX..
    And it would be Easy to Dump the Data files so we can ALL read them..
    And it dont need to be complicated programming. Which makes it even easier to protect.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 12:16pm

    I

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 12:22pm

    No open source, no consent.

    Engines used for public functions (down to the staplers and hole punchers) should not have trade secrets. Secrets obstruct oversight and make it impossible for the public to consent to their use.

    In this day and era, it's necessary to be pragmatic and assume that every secret is intended to be a vector for malicious intent, and any official that would accept these secret-laden machines to perform a public service is benefiting from said corruption.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 1:14pm

    What could go wrong with not allowing the public to know who is in charge??

    I am sure Путин - Тех is a completely trustworthy company & allowing them to hide their source code, schematics, ownership from review would lead to no problems what so ever.

    Что меня беспокоит?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    bob, 10 Jul 2019 @ 1:59pm

    Re: Vote By Mail

    They would probably do better if they resorted to deciding these issues with coin tosses. That way there is a chance of the correct outcome.

    You are assuming that one of the available choices was correct to begin with. Most likely the leaders are still "decorating the fish" instead of tackling the real issue causing problems in the firat place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 2:03pm

    No good look possible

    For the life of me I cannot think of a good reason to hide who owns your company, especially if it's involved in providing voting machines where potential conflict of interest would be a huge issue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Pixelation, 10 Jul 2019 @ 2:26pm

    Next up

    Vote totals inside the machines are a trade secret.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    A guy?, 10 Jul 2019 @ 4:46pm

    Doesn't this seem sensationalist for all but Hart Intercivic?

    I know I won't get much love for this but hear me out.

    When looking at the emails Hart Intercivic is the only company that flat out refuses to give name's of owners. I will say that looks bad, I have no idea why they could need to do this.

    However, when looking at the emails for the other two companies they both happily give out the associated name's of all of the owners except for the specific people in the VC's.

    That at first glance also seems ridiculous except that your average vc owns shares in 100+ companies and probably really doesn't want to be getting phone calls and emails from the press from all of their companies.

    So if I was a VC I would stipulate it in a contract that all of the companies associated with the VC firm were not allowed to give out any associated name's of individuals at the company so they can focus on investing in other companies and doing their job instead of dealing with media relations which is the responsibility of the company.

    Am I crazy? That seems fairly likely to me and this whole article seems to gloss over that in order to get more clicks.

    I would be curious to hear what others think though especially if I'm missing something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 5:06pm

    Re: No good look possible

    Because you like making money... okay so its not a good reason but its the reason they use.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 5:40pm

    Hart Intercivic

    If Hart Intercivic doesn't want responsibility for public contracts, then maybe it needs to not take contracts with the government, which is already a moral hazard as it is, let alone an additional one since they're making voting machines without public oversight which creates a second moral hazard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Norahc, 10 Jul 2019 @ 6:25pm

    Re: Re:

    He's not stupid. That's what secret-beneficiary trusts (located somewhere other than Russia) are for.

    Which is why I was half expecting to see Salt Marsh on the lists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Rob, 10 Jul 2019 @ 6:41pm

    Re: Doesn't this seem sensationalist for all but Hart Intercivic

    I totally agree

    None of these companies refused to reveal the information asked of them. They all responded within a week with the names of the owners.

    The lawyer of the State explicitly asked them to point out anything that they feel is a trade secret, which implies the State also thinks some of this could be a trade secret.

    "Records cons6tu6ng trade secrets as defined in G.S. § 66-152(3), and mee6ng all other requirements in G.S. § 132-1.2(1), including designa6on as confiden6al or trade secret at the 6me of ini6al disclosure, are
    not subject to disclosure under North Carolina’s public law. Please ensure that any informa6on your company believes meets these requirements is appropriately labeled as such. "

    So of course they going to say that, as they were given the opportunity to do so.

    In the email chain with Avin Bansal, the State's lawyer comes off as an ass IMO.

    "I understand your response as declining to provide the requested information of the names of all owners/shareholders who own at least a 5% interest in Raging Capital Opportunity Fund V, LLC"

    WTF? That's not at all what they're doing, and they explained that. They said that the Fund (RCOF) doesn't own a controlling stake in Clear Ballot, so must own less than 50%. They then said no individual in that fund owns more than 5% of Clear Ballot Group, which means no individual owns more than 10% of that fund. That seems totally plausible to me - a fund like that usually has a ton of people with money in it.

    They didn't at all decline to answer the question. Even after being accused of withholding information, Avin was very pleasant and made it very clear they want to explain how they're not, even going as far as to provide their cell phone number.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 10 Jul 2019 @ 9:20pm

    Re:

    Why else would Georgia's election official nuke the drives with the machine states if not that?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jul 2019 @ 1:39am

    Just put it in the contract

    North Carolina can just state in tender process that all applicants must provide ownership information.

    Why ask? Just mandate it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Bobvious, 11 Jul 2019 @ 2:31am

    Re: Next up

    Even better. Election OUTCOMES are a trade secret!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    A guy?, 11 Jul 2019 @ 6:16am

    Re: Hart Intercivic

    I'm confused by your comment.

    I agree with you Hart Intercivic not disclosing any information is very shady and I can't think of a plausible reason why they wouldn't even give the names of companies that own portions of their company.

    But why are you saying Hart Intercivic, "doesn't want responsibility for public contracts"

    They obviously do since their entire business is staked on it.

    Also, everyone here is saying that voting machines don't have any public oversight but that's not true. After one Google search you can see that there is an organization called the eac that does exactly that:

    https://www.eac.gov/voting-equipment/

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jul 2019 @ 7:05am

    China and Russia own the voting machine compaines. DUH

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Jul 2019 @ 11:26am

    The EAC

    That's not public oversight. That's state oversight. The public still has to trust the state and take its word that all's legit.

    Examples of where that's recently gone wrong: The FCC, The FAA, The FDA.

    Regulatory capture in the US is epidemic. We cannot trust blind that government institutions will behave themselves, will adequately check up on each other, will not participate in corruption.

    So no. No public oversight...of elections.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    countrygal, 11 Jul 2019 @ 10:16pm

    Re: In math, two negatives make a positive, does it here?

    Private Equity Controls the Gatekeepers of American Democracy ...
    https://www.bloomberg.com/.../private-equity-controls-the-gatekeepers-of-american-d...
    Nov 3, 2018 - A Hart InterCivic voting machine in Texas. ... firm HIG Capital, founded by alumni of Bain & Co. and Blackstone Group LP, made what it
    Trump, Kushner, Russia — and the Blackstone Mystery - WhoWhatWhy https://whowhatwhy.org/2018/03/28/trump-kushner-russia-and-the-blackstone-mystery/
    Trump, Putin and the mob. Part 7: Jared Kushner, Erik Prince & the secret meetings connecting them by @JamesFourM https://link.medium.com/VFcguW1PfY
    The Kushners, the Saudis and Blackstone: behind the recent deals https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-26/the-kushners-the-saudis-and-blackstone-behind-the -recent-deals via @bpolitics

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 12 Jul 2019 @ 6:47am

    Re: In math, two negatives make a positive, does it here?

    "The only way I can conceive of this being true is that their markets would be negatively impacted if their potential customers are aware of who the true owners are."

    So a company manufacturing intransparent machines which count the votes meant to elect political representation do not want to reveal who their owners are.

    How is that not already a national security concern?

    There are plenty of reasons to doubt the validity of e-voting even without mixing in the risk that the guy eventually calling the shots on how the root code should be written might bear the name of Vladimir Putin.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 12 Jul 2019 @ 6:56am

    Re: Publc design on a private corp?

    "Also, as to hacking..ITS NOT HARD TO FIX.."

    Fix? Sure, but that's not the issue here. Anyone with the access required to properly investigate a voting machine hack will inevitably have the access to also amend. Anyone without /root will just be looking at whatever log file the system serves up and have to accept whatever it says as the truth.

    "And it would be Easy to Dump the Data files so we can ALL read them.."

    Nope. I can hand you a data dump saying that 99% voted for Xi Jinping and how the hell are you going to verify that said log file isn't the sheer, unvarnished truth?

    This is the main issue with e-voting. At least in manual voting you have living eyewitnesses observing the process and able to tally the votes. In e-voting the one and only guy able to say the machine counted correctly is someone with /root on that machine. And that guy also then has the ability to tell the machine to present whatever results he wants.

    "And it dont need to be complicated programming. Which makes it even easier to protect."

    Complicated or simple still boils down to the fact that you can't protect it or validate the results unless the one doing the validation also has complete control.

    E-voting is logically impossible to properly validate and shouldn't be used for ANYTHING which is even remotely important.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 12 Jul 2019 @ 7:04am

    Re: No open source, no consent.

    "Engines used for public functions (down to the staplers and hole punchers) should not have trade secrets. Secrets obstruct oversight and make it impossible for the public to consent to their use."

    I'll go one step further. Voting should never be handled by a process which renders the entire concept of voting, counting the votes, and presenting the results verifiable only by the half a dozen "trusted" people who have userid 0 or admin on the machines in question.

    E-voting is fundamentally unusable for any type of vote of actual importance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    fencepost, 12 Jul 2019 @ 11:45am

    Clear Ballot

    A commenter on the Daily Kos discussion of this noted that

    My wife works in development at Clear Ballot Group. They’re the good guys. Based on Boston MA, of the owners listed, two were co-founders who were multi-decade veterans of Boston-area tech firms and the third is an investor whom they have known for a long time, and the fourth is an investment firm focusing on socially responsible investing. Their software involves scanning paper ballots and making an easily verifiable electronic record of everything. (e.g. “Here’s ballot #43 in precinct 17”). Someone can manually check as many ballots as they want.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Jul 2019 @ 2:19am

    Re: No open source, no consent.

    In this day and era, it's necessary to be pragmatic and assume that every secret is intended to be a vector for malicious intent

    The fifth amendment would like a word... I don't like this situation any more than you do but I don't think that's an acceptable solution. Doing away with these machines entirely would be far preferable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 16 Jul 2019 @ 12:00pm

    The Fifth Amendment

    Is an (alleged) protection for the public. Not for systems. And people who have responsibilities that give them power over others (such as prison wardens) might be subject to a greater scrutiny of their behaviors while on duty than the typical citizen going about his private business.

    Instead, in our society we have the reverse, where confessions are beaten out of people, where illegally-obtained evidence is not suppressed due to the good faith exception. Where ALPRs are everywhere tracking innocent civilians and their living patterns so that law enforcement can investigate anomalies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. icon
    lordkoos (profile), 16 Jul 2019 @ 3:37pm

    Those who think The Russians! The Russians! are the culprits here, get real. It is American oligarchs that control these companies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. icon
    lordkoos (profile), 16 Jul 2019 @ 3:43pm

    One of the owners is "Raging Capital"

    Raging Capital Management is based out of Rocky Hill. Raging Capital Management is a large advisory firm with 4 clients and discretionary assets under management (AUM) of $1,221,464,025

    1.2 billion dollars and only 4 clients... oligarchs R us.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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