In 1974, a young man who worked at a printing company named Robert J. Urosevich had a history-altering realization: the optical mark reader machines being used to score standardized school tests (quickly by the thousands) might have other applications too. Thus was born in the brain of an otherwise unremarkable salesman one of history’s worst ideas: could these machines also read an election ballot?
Unfortunately, Bob Urosevich would live long enough to find out.
So Bob, along with his brother Todd, formed a new company in 1976 called Data Mark Systems (DESI) to get “electronic voting machines” into American politics. Because our parents were wiser than us, this new idea was a flop in the 1970s. Sadly, this failure did not stop Bob Urosevich. When the scanner manufacturer, Westinghouse, sensibly got out of the voting machine business in 1979, Bob started his second company — called American Information Systems (AIS) — to further his terrible idea and its awful legacy.
AIS started selling a line of ballot scanners in 1982. The company did not turn a profit (according to Bob) until 1984. That was the year that William and Robert Ahmanson showed up to invest in AIS.
Now here’s where the story gets really interesting.
According to author Bev Harris in her important book Black Box Voting, William and Robert Ahmanson sold their shares in AIS to the Omaha World-Herald and the McCarthy Group three years later. The strange thing is that both Omaha World-Herald and the McCarthy Group were tied to a man named Peter Kiewit. Now Peter Kiewit died in 1979 — but his charity The Peter Kiewit Foundation was involved in the purchase of a voting machine company in 1987.
Do you see the problem? Since when do charities get involved in voting machine companies? Are you confused yet? Well, you are supposed to be. Let’s turn to page 67 from Bev Harris’ book to explain this complicated ownership structure to you.
This is why Bev Harris called it “black box voting” — because tracing the ownership of America’s electronic voting machine companies is impossible, and that’s on purpose.
This shell game with shell companies owning America’s voting machines was just beginning too. Bob Urosevich left American Information Systems — which is the company that he founded — to join another company called Global Election Systems in 1994. A year later, Bob starts his third voting machine company — called I-Mark Systems — which sells a new touch screen voting system.
Two years after Bob starts I-Mark Systems, that new company is acquired by — can you guess the right answer by now? — Global Election Systems which also employs Bob Urosevich of course. In fact, Bob is formally announced as CEO of Global Election Systems in 2000 — but who are we kidding at this point?
To sum it all up: the history of black box voting in America is largely the story of printing paper salesman Bob Urosevich buying and selling companies associated with Bob Urosevich.
Image: Page 107 from Bev Harris’ book.
While Bob was busy with I-Mark Systems and Global Election Systems in 1997, his old company American Information Systems changed its name to ES&S after supposedly buying up the biggest player in the election industry, Business Records Corporation (BRC).
I say “supposedly” because BRC had bought out everyone else supplying county and local governments with election materials and services in a two-year frenzy that was suspicious too.
Image: page 65 of Bev Harris’ book
How did a leviathan like BRC fall into the hands of AIS?
One thing’s for sure: the combination of BRC and AIS into one company called Election Services & Systems (ES&S) in 1997 was clearly a monopoly in the voting machine industry. In fact, the Securities and Exchange Commission objected to the deal on antitrust grounds, which led to one of the strangest outcomes you can imagine: BRC’s assets were divided up between two competing voting machines companies (ES&S and Sequoia).
What was Bob Urosevich doing while his second voting machine company AIS was becoming the industry behemoth ES&S — you ask, dear reader? Well, Bob was doing what any CEO in his industry would do: changing the name of his current company! In 2002, Global Election Systems was sold to Diebold and became Diebold Election Systems.
The rest, as they say, is history.
As a group called the National Election Defense Coalition put it:
Election Day is now dominated by a handful of secretive corporations with interlocking ownership, strong partisan ties to the far right, and executives who revolve among them like beans in a shell game.
Bob and Todd Urosevich are hardly household names. Yet the two brothers have succeeded in monopolizing American election technology for decades through a pair of supposedly competing corporations: the Ohio-based Diebold and the Nebraska-based ES&S. The latter was founded by the Urosevich brothers in 1979 and is headquartered in Omaha, where it has an Ayn Rand–flavored corporate address on John Galt Boulevard.
You see: Diebold became a scandal — especially among Democrats. The National Election Defense Coalition described it thusly:
Diebold became the most infamous name in the industry in 2003, when its CEO, Walden O’Dell, a top fund-raiser for George W. Bush, made a jaw-dropping public promise to “deliver” Ohio’s electoral votes to Bush. The following year, California banned Diebold’s touchscreen system, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley blasted the company as “fraudulent,” “despicable,” and “deceitful.” O’Dell stepped down in 2005, right before the filing of a class-action suit that accused Diebold of fraud, insider trading, and slipshod quality control.
So Diebold Election Systems changed its name to Premier Election Solutions. Can you guess what happened next? Remember, dear readers, black box voting is a shell game. The National Election Defense Coalition explained it:
In 2009, Diebold, which makes ATMs and other security systems, got out of the elections business altogether, selling Premier to ES&S. Here was a windfall for the Urosevich brothers in more than one sense: Bob had decamped to Diebold in 2002, when the company bought Global Election Systems, where he then served as president. Todd, meanwhile, remained at ES&S. This cozy arrangement was disrupted by a Justice Department antitrust intervention, which forced ES&S to split ownership of Premier with Dominion, the next big name in election technology. A month later, the deck was shuffled once again with Dominion’s purchase of Sequoia.
Between them, Dominion and ES&S now count the majority of American ballots. There are, of course, newer technologies in development, including Web-based voting. This latest innovation is being peddled by the Spanish-owned Scytl, which named Bob Urosevich managing director of its Americas division in 2006.
The next time you vote, remember the man who really counts them: Bob Urosevich.
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This post originally appeared here at Emerald Robinson.