April 13, 2004
E-voting probe finds no reason for glitches
By Ian Hoffman, Staff Writer
Electronic devices that held the key to digital voting in Alameda County's Super Tuesday primary failed in at least a half-dozen ways, hobbling the $12.7 million voting system at a quarter of polling places.
Poll workers saw unfamiliar Windows screens, frozen screens, strange error messages and login boxes -- none of which they'd been trained to expect.
A report released Monday by Diebold Election Systems shows that 186 of 763 devices known as voter-card encoders failed during the primary because of hardware or software problems or both, with only a minority of problems attributable to pollworker training.
Diebold's post-mortem of the March 2 election said it was "disappointed" in the encoder failures and that it values its ties to local elections officials. But the McKinney, Texas-based firm offered no fundamental explanation of how and why the company delivered faulty voting equipment to Alameda and San Diego counties -- its two largest West Coast customers -- on the eve of the 2004 presidential primary.
Alameda County Registrar of Voters Bradley Clark wants full answers to that question, plus Diebold's guaranteed fix for software that erroneously gave optically scanned votes to the wrong candidates, by April 29. Otherwise, Clark says, he will consider firing Diebold.
"I want to see some real frankness and answers to the optical scan problem. That to me is the biggest problem facing us," Clark said.
The faulty voter-card encoders can be fixed or replaced by older, more dependable devices, he said, but faulty vote-tabulating software is a more troubling matter.
After the Oct. 7 recall election, when Diebold's vote-tabulating software wrongly awarded 9,000 Democratic absentee votes to a Southern California Socialist, Diebold decided its computer was overwhelmed and replaced it.
In the March primary, Alameda County workers eased the load on Diebold's computer by scanning absentee ballots one party at a time. But San Diego County fed its absentee ballots in as a mix, and Diebold's software misreported almost 3,000 votes. In the worst case, it switched 2,747 Democratic presidential primary votes for U.S. Sen. John Kerry to U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, who had dropped out of the race.
Diebold's latest explanation says its vote-tabulation software apparently could not handle results from multiple optical-scanning machines, processing ballots with large numbers of candidates and precincts.
That vote-tabulating software, technically known as GEMS version 1.18.18, is used by 18 California counties.
Clark said Diebold must offer a firm diagnosis of the software bug, devise a fix and figure out how to get the repaired software tested and approved by the November elections, or Alameda County will have to consider other ways to ensure a reliable election.
"If they can't give us those kinds of assurances, I don't see how we can count ballots," Clark said.
California faces a decisive moment next week on electronic voting. The voting systems panel of the Office of the Secretary of State is to consider findings of an investigation of Diebold, as well as approval of voting systems to be used in the November elections.
Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and his subordinates on the panel are considering a range of options including disallowing all touchscreen voting systems -- now used by 40 percent of California voters -- or selectively decertifying all or some Diebold voting systems.
The showdown joins two intersecting controversies: broad objections to electronic voting as unsecure and sensitive to technological failure and Diebold's fielding of untested or uncertified hardware and software in California counties.
The voter-card encoders are the latest example. A single lab hired by Diebold gave them cursory testing two weeks before the primary. State elections officials approved their use because Alameda, San Diego and other counties said they had no practical alternative.
"What happened was Diebold beta-tested this smart-card encoder on Alameda and these other counties, and the state and the counties let them, and voters were disenfranchised because of it," said Kim Alexander, president of the Davis-based California Voter Foundation.
Alameda County officials estimate that some 156 voters were turned away from the polls March 2, the largest number from a single precinct in Pleasanton.
Contact Ian Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Copyright 2004 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers
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