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Voting system bidding probed

Advocates across nation question electronic ballots

Of The Post and Courier Staff

COLUMBIAThe state is investigating alleged contract bidding improprieties by the South Carolina Election Commission, authorities announced Tuesday, the same day voter advocates around the nation expressed growing concerns that electronic voting systems simply offer a new way to cheat.

In 2002, President George Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law, allocating $3.9 billion to states and requiring they implement and maintain an interactive, centralized, and uniform statewide computerized voter registration list by 2004.

Ever since, voter advocates from New Jersey to New Mexico have questioned the nation's rush to computerize the process, fearing their haste will leave the door open for fraud and abuse.

On Tuesday, advocates in 19 states held press conferences at their respective elections commissions, calling for a halt to the process until safeguards are in place to protect voters.

In South Carolina, where $48 million in voter act money is up for grabs, members of the South Carolina Progressive Network took to the steps of the State Election Commission to demand a stop to the current process of providing a statewide voting system.

The press conference came on the same day that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart said his organization had begun an official investigation into alleged improprieties at the commission.

"What's the hurry?" said network Director Brett Bursey. "The commission's rush to spend this money on the highest tech appliances seems to be driven by the vendors and the Election Commission's power to spend the $48 million as they choose."

The commission has faced criticism and accusations since the original $32 million contract was awarded to Nebraska-based Electronic Systems and Software in April, a company that has come under fire for problems with its machines in Indiana and Louisiana and for questions about its ethical practices in Arkansas and Florida.

Last week, two state legislators asked for an official investigation into claims that improprieties took place within the commission, taking aim directly at election commission Director Marci Andino.

For two and a half years, Andino worked for Unisys, a company specializing in computer system integrations and server technology. In 2002, ES&S and Unisys teamed up in a failed bid for Georgia's statewide voting system. The two companies later formed an alliance to provide statewide voter registration systems nationwide.

Andino, in between stints at the Election Commission, worked for Unisys during its partnership with ES&S in Georgia. Andino denies a conflict of interest in her office. She said Unisys is not a part of the current deal and will play no part in the instillation or running of the state's voting system. She said she did not play a role in influencing the committee that ultimately ed ES&S over its competitors.

Technical problems with the original award forced the state's chief procurement officer to solicit proposals again in June. The deadline for new proposals was Friday.

Members of the network are unhappy that none of the machines under consideration produce verifiable voter printouts. Three companies are vying for the state contract. None of those companies, however, are offering machines capable of producing a paper trail.

On Tuesday, State Rep. Joe Neal, D-Columbia, joined the network in asking commission officials to address this shortcoming, saying the lack of a paper trail increases chances of fraud and abuse.

"Without some sort of protective, backup measure, we would have a system open to all sorts of problems, be they from hackers or anyone else," Neal said.

According to Neal, federal regulations outlined in the voter act require a permanent paper record. Andino said Neal's interpretation of the law is merely his opinion.

After the press conference, Neal met with state Attorney General Henry McMaster to seek help in stopping the award process.

Neal asked McMaster to issue an official opinion on the federal regulation, and if he agreed with their finding, to step in and halt the awarding of the contract.

Trey Walker, McMaster's spokes-man, said the attorney general would investigate the issue and give Neal an answer as soon as possible.

"We are being asked to trust our vote to a computer system purchased and developed by people who are under an ethics investigation," Bursey said. "At this point, I'm not sure if I have more concern about the computers or the people involved in buying them."

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