Survey contradicts vote machine firm's failure rate claim
By M.C. MOEWE Daytona Beach News-Journal 03 November 2007
A leading voting machine manufacturer said some of its 25,000 optical scan readers used locally and throughout the nation have developed a problem that causes memory card failures during elections.
While state and Diebold Inc.'s election division officials say the problem does not threaten the integrity of U.S. elections, Volusia County election officials note the problem has caused errors and adds to the costs of elections.
"I don't think votes are lost," Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall said. "There are so many checks and balances."
Her office is accustomed to dealing with the failures, McFall said, and she doesn't anticipate problems for Tuesday's election.
In August, the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections sent out a notice to county supervisors of elections who use the Diebold Inc. voting system advising enhanced security procedures to limit access and possible exploitation of optical scan memory cards which are not encrypted, authenticated or protected. The advisory was sent after Florida State University experts found potential security compromises with Diebold's voting system.
In Volusia County during the November 2006 election, 11 of 249 optical scan memory cards had to be replaced, according to a county report. In Flagler County, one of 51 cards failed.
Diebold officials said the 4.4 percent error rate in Volusia was unusual, that the average was about 1 percent. The company conducted a survey of 27 Florida counties that use its machines but refused to release the results, calling them "proprietary business information."
A Daytona Beach News-Journal public records request to the counties surveyed showed error rates as high as Volusia's were not uncommon. While some Florida counties had no failures with their optical scan memory cards, others had problems with nearly one in 10 during the November 2006 election.
Now the company has plans in January to inspect the "J40 connector" the piece that connects the memory card to the machine on the 2,693 optical scan machines in Florida. Any that are damaged will be replaced, said Christopher Riggall, a spokesman for Diebold's election division, now called Premier Election Solutions. The company was unable to give a cost for the repair but said the work will be covered under warranty.
"We will address any card-failure issues with our customers in other states on a case-by-case basis," Riggall said.
The company offered several explanations for the damage, including improper cleaning, foreign objects and improper memory card removal or ion.
Florida officials said they were unaware there was a problem with some of the machines causing memory card failures. "They should have security and chain of custody no matter if you are (replacing a memory card) one time or a hundred times," said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State.
Volusia has a history of problems with its memory cards.
A 2004 Diebold e-mail indicates Volusia had more memory card failures than "the rest of our customers in Florida combined." A Volusia County report on the November 2004 election shows 57 memory card failures.
Before the November 2006 election, Diebold replaced all 311 of Volusia County's optical scan cards to try to lower the number of failures.
"The problem is delays and inconvenience for the election staff," Riggall said. "Our problem is not that votes are lost."
But a January 2001 Volusia County e-mail described how a poll worker unwittingly lost more than 300 ballots when a memory card failed in the middle of reading ballots during the 2000 election. The mistake was discovered after the close presidential race forced a hand recount.
A return e-mail from the voting machine company, then known as Global Election Systems, detailed how a similar problem occurred in Seminole County that year. In the November 2006 election, Seminole County had the highest optical scan memory card failures, according to the records obtained by The News-Journal.
The Florida State University information technology laboratory that analyzed the Diebold voting system in July noted that "error handling makes it difficult to differentiate between malicious activity and failure."
The cause of Volusia County's most infamous memory card problem has never been determined when more than 16,000 negative votes were recorded against Al Gore.
"Will someone please explain this so that I have the information to give the auditor instead of standing here 'looking dumb,' " wrote a county election official to Global in the January 2001 e-mail.
Global, which was purchased by Diebold in 2002, offered the employee several possibilities ranging from a corrupt memory card to the possibility a second memory card was used by an unauthorized source.
Deanie Lowe, who was the Volusia County supervisor for 12 years before McFall, said the number of memory card failures she dealt with during elections was frustrating and she had worked to find the cause, including sending memory cards to the company to investigate the problem.
"If they've discovered what is wrong, it will be a happy day for the supervisors who use that system," Lowe said.
Protecting the Vote
When memory cards failed on more than 4 percent of the optical-scan voting machines used in Volusia County last year, the manufacturer said it was an anomaly, that the average was about 1 percent. A survey conducted by The News-Journal found failures such as Volusia's were not unusual. The company now says it plans to inspect more than 2,500 machines in Florida before next year's elections. Here's a sampling of counties that use Diebold Inc. machines, along with the percentage of memory card failures during the 2006 elections:
County Failure %
St. Lucie 3.8
Source: News-Journal research
Voters in 11 area cities will be heading to the polls Tuesday:
· Daytona Beach (Zone 2 only)
· Daytona Beach Shores
· Deltona (District 2 only)
· Lake Helen
· New Smyrna Beach
· Oak Hill
· Orange City
· Palm Coast
· Ponce Inlet