Diebold hires top Dem for PR blitz

Former party chairman make the case for voting to California


By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER


With a phone call and a retainer, Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell has launched

former Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew on a 50-state

ambassadorship for electronic voting.


O'Dell said he ``wanted to reframe some of the issues,'' Andrew said.


His first stop: California, the nation's largest market for voting machines

and the place where Diebold's fortunes as the largest supplier of

electronic-voting machines in the nation could be made or broken.


``Even if you have tremendous success every place else,'' said Andrew, ``if

you can't sell technology in California, you're in trouble.''


The rest of the voting industry is selling technology here. Millions in

federal dollars sit ready for counties to put at least one high-tech,

handicapped-accessible voting machine in every polling place by January.


But in California, Diebold can't sell its touchscreen voting machine, the

AccuVote TSx, nor can counties that bought thousands of the machines in 2003

used them in elections.


More than $30 million worth of TSx machines sit in three counties'

warehouses, unapproved for actual voting. More than $15 million worth of

earlier-generation Diebold touchscreens in Alameda, Los Angeles and Plumas

counties cannot be used after January.


Andrew said computer scientists and e-voting activists are standing in the

way of a promising technology, an ATM-like voting computer with such a low

error rate that more votes count. And that, said Andrew, should work to the

benefit of Democrats.


The tour pairs Andrew with former Republican congressional aide Melissa

McKay, now working for the public-relations firm, Ogilvy PR. But California

and its Democrats were clearly Andrew's show.


Diebold's new charm offensive for Democrats strikes some as a

public-relations gambit, a segue from mishaps and mistakes in its voting

business to the uncontroversial notion of making more votes count for the

elderly, minorities and disabled voters.


``This is a new tactic, a new solution for a company that, unlike other

electronic-voting companies, has a continuing public-relations problem,

certainly in California,'' said Dan Seligson, editor of, a

nonpartisan clearinghouse for voting-reform information.


``It's not based on nothing,'' Seligson said. ``It's based on the problems

they've had.''


In three years in California, Diebold voting devices have awarded thousands

of votes to the wrong candidates and broken down in two large counties

during a presidential primary. Two successive state election chiefs, a

Democrat and a Republican, both have rejected the TSx.


Former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley suggested criminal prosecution,

citing misleading statements by Diebold Election Systems executives and

``reprehensible'' tactics. The state joined a false-claims suit against the

company and won a $2.5 million settlement.


Last month, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson cited poor performance in

state testing, with paper jams and software crashes in 28 percent of

machines used in a mock election.


But Andrew isn't traveling the nation to talk about that or even to talk

much about Diebold. So why is a ranking Democratic operative who was

convinced Republicans ``stole'' the 2000 election working for Diebold and

O'Dell, a battlestate fund-raiser for Bush-Cheney 2004?


It is Andrew's message  that paperless electronic voting is good for

Democrats - and his connections in Democratic circles.


``Joseph's a smart guy and has a lot of contacts out there,'' said Kimball

Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington-based consultant on



Andrew is tapping reliable Democratic constituents - civil-rights groups,

minority groups such as the NAACP and the National Association of Latino

Elected Officials and such disability groups as the Council for the Blind.


They rallied in 2001 under the umbrella of the Leadership Conference on

Civil Rights to rid the nation of reviled punchcard voting, and Andrew

worked pro-bono as their lawyer. He delivered bipartisan support for the

Help America Vote Act. Behind the act was the presumption that electronic

voting was salvation from the dimpled and hanging chad and from having to

resort to the Supreme Court to decide the presidency.


But Congress delayed 16 crucial months in setting up a new federal agency to

oversee and enforce standards for the new voting equipment. By 2003, the

debate over voting equipment shifted from civil-rights groups and their

lawyers to computer scientists who argued that electronic voting was too

vulnerable to breakdowns, errors and fraud, at least without any backup

paper record of the vote.


So far, they've been winning. Despite resistance from Diebold and some other

e-voting suppliers, lawmakers in 25 states have passed laws requiring a

paper backup, for review by voters and in most cases recounts by elections

officials. Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia are debating

such a requirement.


While Ohio, Mississippi and Utah are considering large purchases of

touchscreens, sales of paper-based optical scanning machines so far are

outpacing sales of electronic-voting machines since the 2004 election.


In California at least, Andrew sees civil-rights leaders abdicating from a

worthy cause. ``The great irony is, it's the progressives - my side of the

aisle - who are against electronic voting but have the most to benefit from



The odd couple of Diebold and Andrew have ``their work cut out for them,''

said Kim Alexander, president of nonprofit California Voter Foundation.


She acknowledges that electronic voting has plenty going for it, such larger

type for elderly voters, ballot displays in multiple languages and an audio

ballot for visually impaired voters.


``But the way it's been implemented has been irresponsible and reckless,''

Alexander said. ``What we've seen all across the country are numerous

examples of glitches and problems. I wish that Diebold would put it's effort

into making better equipment and making its paper trail work, rather than a

PR campaign.''


Contact Ian Hoffman at



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