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County's vote-counting snafu crops up in San Diego

By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER

Diebold Election Systems gave one explanation after another to Alameda County officials last year when its machines switched thousands of Democratic absentee votes to a Southern California socialist.

In the end, Diebold blamed the vote-tabulating server and swapped it out.

Now San Diego County has run into the same problem with its $31 million Diebold system, reporting that Diebold's central vote-tabulating computer gave thousands of absentee votes to the wrong candidates.

The two counties Diebold's largest customers on the West Coast are showing diminishing patience with the voting-systems giant.

San Diego County Chief Administrator Walt Ekard, once a fan of Diebold and its voting products, wrote to company executives this week of his "dissatisfaction."


Beyond mass failures of electronic devices needed to call up digital ballots in San Diego County a problem also shared with Alameda County Diebold's main vote tabulation and reporting system, GEMS, misreported 2,821 votes in two March 2 primary races. In the worst case, the machine awarded 2,747 votes for U.S. Sen. John Kerry to U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, who had ped out of the race. It scattered 74 votes in the Republican U.S. Senate race among three low vote-getters.

The errors are noteworthy for occurring in the highest profile, top-of-ticket partisan races. Neither error changed the outcome of the race, but the size of the error in the Democratic race is five times the 537-vote margin by which George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

"These performance failures are unacceptable," Ekard wrote in his letter to Diebold. "Having a reliable and trouble-free voting system is absolutely essential to the county. Your failure to provide such a system in the March election was extremely troubling."

Ekard made clear to his board of supervisors that he was especially concerned that Alameda County's problem had come back to haunt San Diego or, as he put it, "reappeared in spite of assurances and testing certifications indicating that the issue had been resolved."

"What was originally deemed as a hardware issue with the processor appears to be a software flaw in the certified GEMS system," Ekard told his board.

Alameda County Registrar of Voters Brad Clark has said he never has been satisfied with Diebold's explanations for why the county's absentee-vote count went awry in October's recall.

In conversations with San Diego County officials and a letter to state elections officials, Diebold President Bob Urosevitch appeared to blame the GEMS software. It was "an anomaly occurring when multiple (optical) scanners upload absentee paper ballot results into the GEMS database simultaneously when combined with a high number of precincts and a large number of candidates."

In solving the problem, San Diego County relied on manually counting its paper absentee ballots. County officials wondered aloud whether the incident raises a Catch-22: Touchscreen voting machines are criticized as unsecure and unreliable, but if counties trade them in on optical scanning machines, such as those used for absentee ballots, do they still risk losing or miscounting votes?

"They've got it all wrong," says Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation.

The difference, she says, is optically scanned ballots such as the absentees in San Diego County during the primary and in Alameda County during the recall can be recounted. Electronic votes are recorded as clones, so recounting them is a meaningless gesture.

"With the electronic votes, even if you suspect there's a problem, you can't recover from it," Alexander said.

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