Chicago Sun-Times


City, county rip voting machine firm


March 24, 2006



City and county election officials are threatening to withhold millions of dollars in payments to the company that provided voting equipment for Tuesday's primary.


Chicago election chairman Langdon Neal said it is "embarrassing" that hundreds of machines failed to properly produce votes, while Cook County Clerk David Orr said he's having "very serious conversations" with Sequoia Voting Systems about the problems.


Sequoia won the contract last year to provide $50 million in new voting equipment needed to comply with new federal voting laws.


Sequoia blames training


City and county voters used touch-screen and optical-scan machines, but when election judges tried merging the systems to produce results, many failed.


And while Sequoia officials continue to insist that training is the most likely problem -- not the machines -- others aren't so sure.


"If Tuesday was opening night of the performance, it was a flop," city election commissioner Richard Cowen said. "I won't vote to approve any further distribution to Sequoia."


Neal said while the city recently prided itself on producing 90 percent of the results within an hour of polls closing, "now I'm sitting here with egg on my face."


"There will be contract ramifications from their performance," he said of Sequoia, whether they "withhold pay or seek appropriate remedies."


The city has so far paid out about $11 million on its $26 million contract, Neal said as he laid out a series of reforms he plans to install before November's election.


"Believe you me," he said, "we'll seek payment from Sequoia for anything that we have to expend in a corrective fashion."


Orr spokesman Scott Burnham said the county has paid $8 million of its $24 million contract with Sequoia, though "we're not going to make [further] payments until we're satisfied with the system."


Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer said the company continues to work with election officials to answer questions and solve problems.


Fewer precincts proposed


"The machines worked very well in the polling places," she said, adding they will review procedural issues including "simplifying training" and "whatever we can do to streamline the process."


Cowen, a Republican, also proposed eliminating about 1,000 city precincts to reduce the number of judges needed. Others expressed concern that could disenfranchise some voters. Neal distanced himself from that idea but emphasized that the machines "while unacceptably slow, were accurate," and this election provided "the most fraud-free election we've had in 10 years."


Orr said this primary "asked too much of our judges" and they must do something to ease the burden on those paid $150 to work the polls for 13 hours then transmit results. This year's snafus meant many worked into the morning.