Elections company could face more problems (CA)
Thadeus Greenson The Times-Standard March 18, 2009
Premier Elections Solutions' problems with the California secretary of state may only be just beginning.
Premier, the company formerly known as Diebold that created the flawed version of election software that led to almost 200 ballots being ped from Humboldt County's final November election results, was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday called by Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
Bowen is considering whether to withdraw the state's approval of the specific software used in Humboldt and two other California counties.
After Premier's representative at Tuesday's hearing testified that one of the key “deficiencies” identified in Bowen's report has not been addressed in any subsequent versions of the elections software, Bowen's office said she is interested in investigating the matter further.
The “deficiency” in question is one that allows operators to ballots from the central vote-counting system without those deletions showing up on the system's audit logs.
”The secretary is interested in examining the more recent versions of GEMS to see if the audit log problem persists there,” said Bowen's spokeswoman Kate Folmar in an e-mail to the Times-Standard, before declining to say exactly what Bowen might do if she finds that the problem persists in later versions of the software. “Secretary Bowen always gathers the facts before deciding what the next steps would be. Should she discover the audit
log problems in subsequent versions of GEMS, then she would decide what steps, if any, to take.”
Issues with Premier's Global Elections Management System (GEMS) version 1.18.19 reportedly first came to the attention of Bowen after Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich informed her office that the first-of-its-kind Humboldt County Election Transparency Project found that 197 vote-by-mail ballots, which had been scanned through vote counting machines, disappeared days later from the final ballot tally as tabulated by the GEMS software.
The problem was traced to a programming error in that version of the software that sometimes results in the first deck of ballots scanned through the vote counting machine known as “Deck 0” vanishing without a trace from the final results.
Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Elections Solutions, said the company became aware of the error in 2004 the same year the systems were approved for sale in California.
Premier issued “work around” orders to its customers, instructing them how to avoid the error, but never notified the Secretary of State's Office of the problem.
Bowen's office investigated the matter and issued a 13-page report earlier this month to the federal Elections Assistance Commission detailing the “Deck 0” error, and several “deficiencies” the investigation turned up with the system's audit logs. In addition to the fact that the system lets operators ballots from the count without the action showing up on the system's audit logs, the logs also contain inaccurate time and date stamps and a clear button that allows operators to, intentionally or inadvertently, erase the system's audit logs entirely.
During his presentation of Bowen's report at Tuesday's hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Lowell Finley discussed the “deficiencies.”
”The most striking example is the failure of any audit log or any audit trail mechanism in that version of GEMS to create any record when an elected official intentionally s a deck of ballots,” Finley said, adding that he was shocked to later find that the system included a clear button. “The presence of these clear buttons was a violation of established standards going back to the 1990 voting system guidelines, which require an indestructible archival record.”
Bowen's report states that discovery of the “Deck 0” problem or any of the three audit log “deficiencies” would have warranted the system's failure of independent testing done in 2004.
Premier Western United States General Manager Justin Bales testified at the hearing that the “Deck 0” problem was fixed in subsequent versions of GEMS. Similarly, Bales testified that Premier removed the clear button from its audit logs in a version released just two weeks after GEMS version 1.18.19, and all subsequent versions. But, Bales testified that none of the subsequent versions of GEMS report ballots d by the system operator on the audit logs.
”We never intended for any malicious intent or not to log certain activities, it was just not in the initial programing and we are taking a serious look at that,” Bales said.
Bales began his testimony by stating that Premier supports Bowen's proposed withdrawal of the state's approval of the system in question, that the unearthed problems trouble the company greatly and that an accurate vote count is Premier's mission.
Bales then quickly said that Premier's flawed software was only one component of what went wrong in Humboldt County.
”Election integrity comes down to a system of people, processes and technology,” Bales said.
Bales said that while other California counties using the same version of GEMS managed to use the company's “work around” instructions without any problems, Humboldt County's former Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams failed to pass the instructions along to his successor.
Further, Bales said it is crucial that elections departments have an accurate canvass process in place to reconcile the number of ballots they issued in an election with the total number of ballots tabulated.
”In the case of the Humboldt County election, this process failed,” Bales said.
According to Bowen's report, Crnich's staff twice went through the process Bales described, checking the numbers of physical ballots against the vote totals once on the day the vote-by-mail ballots were scanned and again on Election Day. The ballots in question didn't disappear until days later, according to the report.
During the hearing's public comment period, Crnich spoke and clearly took issue with Bales' statement.
”Mr. Bales, I'm offended by your implication that I didn't do any audit,” she said, asking him to refer to the section of Bowen's report summarized above. “If you're saying that your system needs to be checked every damn time we turn it on, I agree with you.”
If there seemed to be a winner at Tuesday's hearing, it was the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project, which drew kudos from Finely and from many members of the public.
The first-of-its-kind project passes every ballot cast in an election through an optical scanner after it's officially counted. Those images are then placed online, along with open-source software, created by Mitch Trachtenberg, that allows viewers to sort the ballots and scrutinize the vote as they see fit.
According to Finley, the unearthed errors in Premier's software would not have been discovered without the project.
”The first thing I'd like to acknowledge is that discovery of the initial software error was not through the efforts of our office, but through a unique collaboration between Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich of Humboldt County and volunteer community members called the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project, and the secretary is grateful to them for putting in all of the time and effort that led to the discovery of this problem,” Finley said.
Folmar said Bowen will now take the matter under submission and announce her decision as to whether to withdraw the state's approval of Premier's GEMS version 1.18.19 in the coming weeks.
Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or
On the web:
To view the Secretary of State's complete report, visit www.sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_vs_premier.htm
Members of the public can submit comments for consideration by the Secretary of State's Office through Friday, by mailing them to Office of the Secretary of State, 1500 11th St., Sacramento, CA 95814 or by e-mailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org.