http://www.newsobserver.com/102/story/381151.html

The News & Observer

Dec 23, 2005

 

Voting machine maker leaves N.C.

Officials fear Diebold's move will hurt efforts to replace machines

 

Lynn Bonner, Staff Writer

 

One of the nation's largest voting machine companies will not sell new equipment in the state, increasing calls for changes in a law meant to make election results more reliable.

 

The law requires companies to disclose details about their machines' software, which Diebold Election Systems said it could not do. The company told the State Board of Elections on Wednesday it would not keep trying to sell its equipment here.

 

Diebold's decision to withdraw leaves just one company, Election Systems & Software, eligible to sell its wares, though a few other companies still have a chance to qualify to make limited sales.

 

Diebold's withdrawal left some state and local elections officials wringing their hands, worried that one company would not be able to supply the entire state. But voting activists who distrust the security of the company's software are delighted Diebold is gone.Counties are under a tight schedule to select new machines and have them ready for the May primaries. ES&S said it can supply enough machines, but counties are still worried.

 

"We already had concerns that the certified vendors would not be able to deliver the machines fast enough," said Paul Meyer, a lobbyist for the state Association of County Commissioners. "If you reduce that number to one, it gets even more challenging."

 

Legislators passed a law with a long list of voting machine requirements after a touch-screen voting machine in Carteret County lost more than 4,000 votes in the 2004 election. The lost votes left a close statewide race for agriculture commissioner unresolved for months.

 

Among the new requirements: Machines must produce a paper record of votes that can be used in audits, machine companies must turn over machine computer codes for review by state experts and they must tell who wrote the computer programs.

 

State elections officials declared this month that most counties' voting machines cannot be used next year because they don't meet state or federal standards. Eighty counties or more are in the market for replacements.

 

Last week the commissioners' association asked Gov. Mike Easley's staff about allowing counties with machines that meet federal standards to continue using them. Getting that permission means the legislature would have to come back for a special session to change the voting law, Meyer said.

 

Chuck Owen, a Diebold lawyer, also wants the law changed and the wording narrowed to require only the information that companies can reasonably supply.

 

It would be impossible to go back and find the names of everyone who helped write all Diebold computer programs, he said, much less the names of programmers who wrote Windows, a Microsoft program used in Diebold machines. Company representatives have been working quietly for a special session, he said.

 

The company asked a Wake County judge for immunity from civil or criminal penalties if it did not produce the information, but its lawsuit was dismissed.

 

The State Board of Elections still certified the company, but Diebold felt it should withdraw, Owen said. "We don't want to find ourselves in violation of state law."

 

State elections are moving to a new system of centralized control, with the elections board putting limits on county purchases. But the board also wanted competition.

 

Gary Bartlett, the state elections director, said competition is good, but other states have seen advantages to using one brand. "It's easier to manage," he said.

 

Voting activists wanted Diebold out of the running, and worked hard to get rid of the company. Diebold has a nationwide group of detractors, who say that the company's machines are vulnerable to hackers. The company denies the claims, but California refused this week to allow counties to use certain Diebold machines because key components had not been tested.

 

Chris Telesca, a voting activist from Raleigh, was ecstatic that the company decided not to work here.

 

"I don't know you well enough to tell you how fantastic I'm feeling about this," he said.

 

Telesca said he would oppose changing the law because it was meant to protect the integrity of elections.

 

But Charles Winfree, a state elections board member from Greensboro, is convinced the law needs changes.

 

"Choice would benefit the counties," he said, "and now they don't have it."

 

Staff writer Lynn Bonner can be reached at 829-4821 or lbonner@newsobserver.com.

 

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