August 17, 2005
Remaking the Rules
Private voting-equipment companies play part in reforming county elections
By CYDNEY GILLIS
Nine months after the election disaster of 2004 and its lost ballots and dead voters, King County is struggling to reform its elections division — an effort that has involved three separate reviews of the division by independent groups.
One of them is a team of elections officials contracted through The Election Center, a Houston-based nonprofit association that has confirmed receiving donations in the past from voting equipment makers such as Diebold, the provider of the optical-scanning machines that King County uses to count ballots.
Election Center filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that from 1997 through 2000 the organization received $10,000 a year from Sequoia Voting Systems, an Oakland, Calif., maker of touch-screen voting machines.
Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, whose more than 1,000 members include current and former elections officials and executives from voting equipment companies, confirmed the donations for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which first reported the information in March 2004.
Lewis also told the paper that the group had received donations of unspecified amounts from Omaha-based Electronic Systems & Software and “probably Diebold.”
The eight-member team, led by Ernie Hawkins, a retired voter registrar from Sacramento, Calif., was hired in May by King County to perform a process-by-process audit of elections management and procedures under a $300,000 contract.
According to a briefing given Monday to the King County Council by County Auditor Cheryle Broom, who is overseeing the contract, the team’s focus is on methods, not machinery — though the audit will cover ballot-counting processes.
Broom says she was unaware of the donations. A Sequoia executive quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer said the donations were intended to further The Election Center’s work in training election officials.
“ They had to sign off on an independence form that there would be absolutely no conflicts of interests for conducting this audit,” Broom says. “We take that pretty seriously.”
Councilmember Larry Gossett says he views it as a potential conflict of interest that would require more information.
Councilmember Kathy Lambert says she was not concerned about the donations from touch-screen makers because the performance audit being conducted by The Election Center and its local partner, Issaquah-based Strategica, involves respected officials who only want the best for King County.
“ I think that is totally separate from this,” Lambert says.
“ What they’re looking is climate, candor, accuracy,” she says of the team’s focus on the election division’s culture. “Those things are far more in-depth than which equipment you’re using. I have no problem with them being objective at all.”
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