Rocky Mountain News

Voting machine glitches tally up


Denver City Council to discuss purchase for next election


By Lou Kilzer And Alan Gathright, Rocky Mountain News

May 8, 2006


The company Denver is relying on for voting machines for this year's elections has a history of computer glitches, delayed counting, supply problems and a brush with a bribery scandal.


Malfunctions in Sequoia Voting Systems' machines contributed to a four-week delay in getting full results in Chicago's March primary election - prompting a Cook County official to threaten to withhold payment of some of the $50 million the county owes Sequoia.


Although Denver will be using some of the same machines implicated in Chicago, city election officials say they have worked with Sequoia for decades and they will be ready for the Aug. 8 primary.


Essex County, N.J., election officials, however, are waiting for Sequoia to deliver 616 machines for its June primary. If they don't arrive in time, the county could lose $5 million in federal funds.


Meanwhile, officials in Pennsylvania are sketching out contingency plans for a May 16 vote in the event Sequoia software problems cannot be fixed in time. A test showed that part of the system being used there is vulnerable to hackers.


These problems follow a series of Sequoia snafus in California, Washington, Florida and New Mexico, according to summaries of news reports given to members of the Denver City Council by a voters' rights organization.


Also on the list is a bribery scandal in Louisiana where that state's election chief, Jerry Fowler, pleaded guilty in 2001 to taking bribes for the purchase of outdated voting equipment at inflated prices.


All of these issues are either minor glitches or problems blown up by the media, said Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer.


The Chicago problems were caused by the adoption of separate high-technology systems at the same time - something that shouldn't happen in Denver, she said.


Denver plans to use only one of the two types of voting machines that are at the center of the Chicago problems, Shafer said.


And so far, she said, Cook County has taken no formal action to withhold payments to Sequoia.


Sequoia is working closely with Cook County officials to correct problems before the next election, Shafer added.


And Essex County will soon get the machines it ordered, Shafer said. Election official Carmine Casciano agrees, saying he expects the machines within a week. But, he noted, they were due Feb. 28.


Shafer also said Sequoia is fixing the software problem spotted by a Pennsylvania university researcher, although not all of the fix will be ready by Election Day.


Until then, older technology will be used, Shafer said.


In the Louisiana bribery case, New Jersey businessman Pasquale Ricci and Alabama businessman David Philpot, who was a Sequoia equipment distributor but not an employee, both pleaded guilty.


One Sequoia executive, Phil Foster, allegedly delivered cash to Fowler, the Louisiana elections chief.


Foster's attorney said Foster took envelopes given to him by Philpot and deposited them in a box in Louisiana where they were allegedly retrieved by Fowler.


But Foster didn't know that the envelopes contained large amounts of cash, said his attorney, Karl Koch. As far as Foster knew, Koch said, the envelopes might have contained "the Hope Diamond."


The case against Foster was dropped after a court ruled that an earlier grant of immunity made it impossible to try him. He has maintained his innocence throughout.


Foster has had "his record expunged" and is still a Sequoia manager, Shafer said.


"At no time were any allegations made suggesting that Sequoia Voting Systems was involved in any type of unlawful activity in any way," she wrote to the News.


Foster could not be reach for comment.


Chicago's problems


Shafer said the alleged problems in other states are extremely minor if they exist at all, often representing distortions disseminated by anti-Sequoia and anti-electronic voting bloggers.


That's not true, say critics, including Bruce Serell, who is on a technical panel in Palm Beach County, Fla., trying to straighten out electronic voting there.


Serell said there were thousands of problems involving Sequoia machines during the 2002 and 2004 elections there. He said systems with a paper audit trail - similar but not identical to the ones proposed for Denver - were "difficult to install, difficult to read and they jam."


Denver's voting machines are the same as one of the models used in Chicago. With those, a voter can check how the machine will register the vote on a paper record.


Bev Davis, founder of Black Box Voting, a frequent critic of electronic voting, agreed with Shafer that many of the Chicago problems were caused by poll workers, not the machines.


But the workers had problems because of the complexity of the system, she said.


Chicago Alderman Ed Burke says he doesn't buy blaming poll workers.


"It's easy to shift the responsibility to the hard-working (election) judges that are underpaid and overworked, but who had the responsibility for training?" he asked. "Wasn't that part of their contract?"


Time crunch


Denver City Council President Rosemary Rodriguez says she was caught off-guard by Sequoia's problems elsewhere.


"I didn't know any of this," said Rodriguez, who is a former city clerk who oversaw elections. "Based on my experience with Sequoia, I found them to be very reliable."


Rodriguez wonders if the electronic voting problems have been fueled by communities across the country scrambling to meet state and federal deadlines for getting newly certified voting machines in time for this year's elections.


In February, she unsuccessfully sought to buy Denver a temporary reprieve from the deadline by calling for mail-in elections this year. But city election officials were doubtful they could obtain the required special state legislation.


Denver Election Commission officials say they have a time-tested relationship with Sequoia and its predecessor company dating back 50 years.


"We're very confident in Sequoia and have had no problems with them," said Alton Dillard, the commission's interim executive director. "We are going with a vendor that is certified by the federal government and the state of Colorado."


State and federal mandates


The proposed purchase of 240 Sequoia "Edge" machines comes as Denver shifts from neighborhood precinct polling places to 47 voting centers for the primary.


The machines' new computerized technology allows disabled citizens to vote without assistance, a requirement of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.


They also will help Denver meet a state mandate that new electronic machines provide a paper record, showing individuals how they voted and allowing them to correct any mistakes.


Denver voters will use a combination of the new Edge machines and 9-year-old Sequoia Advantage machines on which voters press buttons to electronically cast their vote. The 1,100 older machines print an internal tally of total votes cast to confirm the electronic count.


Dillard said the Denver voting system is safe from manipulation because the machines are not linked by a network that could be "hacked" into by outsiders. Votes are recorded on electronic ballot cartridges that are hand-carried to a central tabulation machine by election officials.


But critics of electronic voting cite the myriad vulnerabilities and failures that have plagued equipment vendors across the country.


"At all levels of the process, the election system is flawed," Denver software programmer Jeff Cook warned a City Council hearing in late April. He was among eight citizens who urged the council to move cautiously in spending $1.4 million in federal funds for new machines.


"Why is it that computer professionals are the ones leading the charge against electronic voting machines?" Cook said. "We work with computers day in and day out . . . I would not trust them for a minute with my vote."


He advocates a low-tech solution: hand-counting of paper ballots, a practice he says works well in Canada and Germany.


"This isn't just about Sequoia. Every vendor has got problems," said Sarah McCarthy, vice president for communication for the Denver League of Women Voters.


"The league's intent is that the public has confidence in the outcome of an election. And we are not convinced at this time that electronic voting can achieve that," added McCarthy. "Personally, I'm telling my friends: 'Vote absentee.' "


Denver City Council will discuss its purchase from Sequoia tonight.


Satisfied customers


Sequoia answers its detractors with letters of recommendation from happy clients.


Sequoia sent the News a letter the company received on April 20 from Wayne E. Vaden, Denver's clerk and recorder.


Vaden wrote: "Sequoia has been a longstanding vendor to our jurisdiction, and we find their customer support and service to be superior. The company is reliable and dependable."


Cook County, Ill., officials also sprang to the company's defense after the March election.


The county Board of Elections wrote this to a local newspaper:


"Without argument, voters in Chicago and suburban Cook County encountered some problems in the March 21 primary - from malfunctioning equipment to delays in the reporting of vote totals. But, it certainly was not the disaster portrayed by the Chicago Tribune editorial of March 23."


Updating systems


Counties with older Sequoia equipment


Clear Creek






Counties that are negotiating for new equipment





ElbertSources: Colorado Secretary Of State, Sequoia Voting Systems


Reasons for 2002 Help America Vote Act


"To establish a program to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems, to establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections and to otherwise provide assistance with the administration of certain federal election laws and programs, to establish minimum election administration standards for states and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of federal elections."


"(The act) requires that each voting system used in federal elections be accessible for persons with disabilities, including persons who are blind or have low vision. Specifically, each polling place can satisfy this requirement through the use of at least one direct recording electronic voting system or other voting system equipped to allow disabled voters the same opportunity for access and participation as other voters, including the ability to vote independently and privately."Source: U.S. Department Of Justice, Public Law 107-252, 107th Congress or 303-892-2644


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