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Electronic Voting: The Latest News

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2004; 5:57 PM

Oct. 14: Heat of the Moment

• Palm Beach County's electronic vote tabulation machines were feeling a little feverish, according to Theresa LePore, the notorious Florida county's elections supervisor. That's the reason the machines crashed Tuesday, forcing the cancellation of a routine test of the system, according to the Palm Beach Post.

The Post reported that the file server LePore planned to use crashed before the test. As the Post reported: "The server a backup storage device is one of several used to tabulate votes. Even if one of the file servers goes down on election night, LePore said the votes cast on the electronic machines won't be lost and the office would use a backup server. LePore suspects the malfunction was caused by a power failure during Hurricane Jeanne. LePore said the air-conditioning to the building was shut off after the storm and the temperature in the computer room reached 90 degrees. 'Computer rooms are not supposed to be hot,' LePore said." 
 Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), the state's most vocal advocate for a voter-verified paper trail on touch-screen voting machines, said the crash demonstrates that paper backup for vote-counting is a must.

The Miami Herald quoted Alia Faraj, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, as saying the issues are unrelated: "It's why tests are mandated by law. [LePore] is experienced, and that's why there is a redundant system in place. This has nothing to do with the touch-screen system or the tabulation of votes."

Meanwhile, two side notes on the players: LePore's term as elections supervisor is up in January after she lost her reelection bid on Aug. 31. Her main claim to fame is her allegedly confusing design for the infamous "butterfly ballots" that set pulses fluttering in Florida's 2000 elections. And Wexler has accepted more than $155,000 from private lobbyists in the form of private trips since January 2000, the Boca Raton News reported. That's the most of any Congress member, according to a recent study by American Public Media's Marketplace program and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

• Voting-machine angst does not reign supreme throughout Florida, as it turns out. The Lake City Reporter today reported that Columbia County "has its equipment under lock and key."

More from the article: "Though there have been voting problems in recent years elsewhere in Florida, [county elections supervisor Carolyn Kirby] said if each county were evaluated individually, Columbia County comes out with good grades. 'I feel like Columbia County knows how to vote and pays attention,' she said." That's one of 67 taken care of...

• Fairfax County, Va.'s voting machines are so foolproof. Just ask electoral board representative Curtis Reaves. He told the Washington Times that the county is inviting critics to come and see just how well the machines, manufactured by Advanced Voting Solutions. From the Times: "Reaves said he invites all critics to attend a demonstration and show workers how their problem scenarios could happen. 'We ask them to demonstrate the problem but the machines are so foolproof.'"

Oct. 13: 'Really Lousy Choices'

• About the only certainty regarding touch-screen voting machines in Florida this election season is that there is no certainty, the Tampa Tribune reported today. Tribune reporter Garrett Therolf did not offer any breaking news in the piece, but did produce a clear summary of recent events determining the electronic voting landscape in the Sunshine State. Also noteworthy were interviews with Richard Perez, general counsel to Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, and Howard Simon, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Florida chapter. Perez said that if a recount were required, it would rely on audit data produced by the machines, even though there is no agreed-upon standard for how to conduct a manual recount with the machines. Simon's response: "We're looking at a range of really lousy choices for three weeks before an election."

An Associated Press report that ran in the Miami Herald the day before featured several groups that say the 15 Florida counties offering electronic voting should give voters the option of paper ballots not a hot choice among defenders of the machines. The groups included the ACLU, People for the American Way and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the same groups that "sucessfully sued the state to overturn an elections rule stating that touch-screen ballots don't have to be included in a manual recount," the AP reported.

Sun-Sentinel reporter Mark Hollis quoted a lawyer for the groups, Alma Gonzalez: "We can't fix it completely for 2004, there's no doubt about that, but we certainly can set up a system that helps us get farther than they are right now... We can't keep having deja vu. We have to stop."

• WTOP, the D.C. area's top all-news station, reported on how Fairfax County, Va., will use touch-screen voting machines in its first national race. The machines have been subjected to a number of "measures" to make sure that they work properly, County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly said in an interview on the radio station.

• The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Nelson Pavlosky and Luke Smith, both 20, the students who last month successfully defended themselves against an e-voting lawsuit brought by Diebold Election Systems. The juniors at Swarthmore College on the Main Line outside Philadelphia were the crew that posted the internal Diebold memos that revealed the coding flaws in their AccuVote-TS touch-screen voting machines. Diebold lost the case after a judge ruled that the company misused the Digital Millennium Copyright Act when they accused the students of intellectual property theft. The data, of course, had been stolen by an unknown hacker and wound up on a number of Web sites, including the one run by Pavlosky and Smith.

End result? Diebold cut its third-quarter earnings forecast because of costs associated with recertifying its machines in California, as well as legal expenses in the Great Bear State. Pavlosky, meanwhile, plans to vote Libertarian and is considering law school. No word on Smith...

Oct. 12: Bye-Bye Buttons

• Bernalillo County, N.M., might join the touch-screen bandwagon. The Albuquerque Tribune reported that the county commission was scheduled to vote on whether to buy new voting machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems to replace its old push-button Danahers (known popularly at one time as the Shouptronics), by early next year. The county would have to request a $3.6 million no-interest loan from the state to buy the machines, the paper reported, noting that another $1 million or so would come from federal funds authorized by the Help America Vote Act.

Oct. 10: An Academic Voice

• Ted Selker, co-director of the voting technology project at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a commentary in Newsday that electronic machines are indeed safer than paper ballots -- as long as their use is supervised and monitored. "The ideal voting machine would demonstrate to the voter that his ballot has been included in the final count before he leaves the booth," Selker wrote. "But even without that assurance, it's important to remember that since Thomas Edison first experimented with an electronic voting device in 1869, each introduction of technology to voting has been challenged by those fearful of its being used to change votes. The best protection has always been human oversight."

Lest anyone suspect Selker of pursuing a hidden agenda, the Caltech/MIT project is one of the few groups of experts on electronic voting that isn't in the horse-racing business. Selker and some of his colleagues believe that problems with e-voting equipment could cause problems on Election Day, but no more or less than other glitches that have always marred election results.

His other advice is to be an informed voter, one who "can guard against the three most prevalent ways that non-absentee ballot votes were lost in 2000: registration problems, confusion over ballot design and lost ballots. A voter needs to check his registration and make sure he goes to the right polling place, make sure he has voted for the candidate of his choice, and give himself enough time to vote carefully and alert poll workers if problems occur."

• Washington residents might not have to worry so much about electronic voting, but some activists say paper trail procedures need to be put in place just the same, the Bremerton, Wash.-based Sun reported. Three-quarters of the state votes absentee, but Kitsap County Elections Manager Dolores Gilmore told reporter Susie Oh her ideal plan for a voting situation: buy touch-screen machines for people who vote in person, use optical-scan devices for absentee ballots and buy systems that allow disabled voters to mark their ballots without assistance.

Oct. 7: Georgia Kvetch

• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is taking readers' comments on touch-screen voting as part of its Web site's front-page, ongoing election coverage. The site asks readers whether they trust Georgia's touch-screen machines, all manufactured by Diebold, to accurately record their votes.

The blog had already garnered 93 responses in little more than a day, and most of the responses were negative. Here's one: "I have worked in computer and network security for as long as it has existed. The blind faith that our Secretary of State places in these machines is beyond my comprehension."

• NBC affiliate WXIA in Atlanta carried a news report on its site featuring Secretary of State Cathy Cox defending the use of Diebold's voting machines, which are in place throughout the state. "There has not been one incident of election equipment tampering in the whole United states of America with electronic voting, despite a lot of the conspiracy theories that you will hear from people," Cox said in the report, which also features a brief text excerpt. The Rome News-Tribune also carried a comment from Cox: "Naysayers and conspiracy theorists have said it won't work, but I’ve had older voters tell me they like the machines so much they’re going to try and get e-mail now."
• Combining optical-scan voting machines with newer paperless machines for a dual voting system is causing some hiccups in Hawaii, but election officials say that none of the glitches would be enough to change the outcome of an election. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin said that officials are going through a "learning" process after irregularities turned up in the state's primary election that used optical-scan machines made by Election Systems & Software and the newer eSlate designed by Hart InterCivic. "The Sept. 21 report listed total turnout for the special election, or nonpartisan races, as 259,014, but the Sept. 23 report listed the total turnout for the special election as 252,630," the newspaper reported. "The new calculations also raised the final turnout for the partisan races -- not all who voted in the special elections voted on the partisan side of the ballot -- to 248,731 from 248,683, an increase of 48 votes."

• The Fair Election Project, a unit of San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, plans to monitor elections in the United States this year as it normally would in "developing" nations around the world. Its purpose in sending representatives to Georgia, of course, is to see whether the Diebold touch-screen machines will disenfranchise registered voters, Wired.com reported. From the Web site: "'In Georgia, they do not have printers installed to produce the voter-verified paper receipt, or paper trail,' said John Gibler, who led the Georgia team for Fair Election. 'This has caused a lot of concern in the citizen groups we met with.' Monitor Elijah Rubvuta, executive director of the Foundation for Democratic Process in Zambia, said Georgia officials could allay voters' fears by requiring the state's voting machines to produce a paper trail. But there has been no indication that Georgia officials will make the move that California and other states have made."

Oct. 1: Diebold Scolded

• Diebold Election Systems misused a controversial copyright law when it tried to force students at Swarthmore College to remove from the Internet copies of internal memos showing that Diebold executives knew about security problems in the company's touch-screen voting machines, a federal judge ruled last Thursday. Wired reported that the judge ordered Diebold to pay damages and legal fees to two students and Online Policy Group, a nonprofit Internet service provider.

"Diebold sent several cease-and-desist letters to the students and threatened them with litigation, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. Online Policy Group was also threatened after someone posted a link to the memos on a website hosted by the ISP. Diebold said the memos were stolen from a company server and that posting them or even linking to them violated the copyright law," Wired reported. "Judge Jeremy Fogel wrote in his decision that 'no reasonable copyright holder could have believed that portions of the e-mail archive discussing possible technical problems with Diebold's voting machines were protected by copyright.'"

Sept. 30: Revolving Door

• Solano County, Calif.'s new elections manager knows from electronic voting. She is Deborah Seiler, former West Coast sales representative for Diebold Election Systems. As reported by the Fairfield-Suisun City Daily Republic, Seiler was the Diebold rep who sold almost 1,200 touch-screen voting machines to the county. Solano officials used them in one election, then canceled the contract and sent back the machines. The county will use optical-scan voting machines.

Seiler is certainly a knowledgeable choice, as the Republic wrote, noting that she used to work for Diebold rival Election Systems & Software. The Associated Press reported that she previously was the state's election chief under former secretary of state Fong Eu. On the other hand, the Diebold situation did not go over very well in Solano County, as Wired reported: "When the state banned the machines because of Diebold's business practices, the county had to find a replacement for the machines and pay Diebold more than $400,000 to get out of its contract."

The Republic quoted one particularly irate official: "I am so angry," District 1 Supervisor Barbara Kondylis said. "And it's done without telling us. I got it from another employee." It also provided the flipside comment from Chief Information Officer Ira Rosenthal, who said that Seiler was the best person for the job, but suspected that "Seiler's hiring might ruffle the feathers of supervisors who were critical of Diebold before and after the March primary, when the company's Accu-Vote TSx machines were used for the first and last time."

• A federal appeals court judge earlier this week overturned a lower court's ruling that threw out a lawsuit filed by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) that would require touch-screen machines in Florida to be equipped with printers for a voter-verified paper trail. The Miami Herald (registration required) in an editorial said that the appeals court judge's decision was the right one, but that it will have no effect by Election Day.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood has "ordered work on a new rule by the Nov. 2 elections that would explain how touch-screen machines' votes can be recounted manually. Would that she had issued this ruling in the first place. For there is no chance that the machines can be adapted with printers to produce a paper trail by November. The state must certify the printers before using them in order to validate the vote -- and no certification has been done. If [federal Judge James] Cohn were to rule in favor of a paper trail, it could put added pressure on the state to establish a single uniform standard of tallying votes in a recount. But such a ruling still wouldn't leave time to make the needed improvements to guarantee voters in 15 counties that their vote will be counted -- and recounted, if necessary -- accurately. Unless, of course, voters resort to absentee ballots."

• Maryland state elections officials said that a stray Diebold Accuvote-TS touch-screen voting machine was delivered to its headquarters, but could not confirm reports of other abandoned machines being discovered on a Baltimore sidewalk and in a city bar, the Associated Press reported in a story that ran in the Baltimore Sun. "Joseph Torre, voting systems and procurement director for the agency, confirmed that one machine was found, but assured board members it did not belong to Maryland." Also from Torre: "It wasn't one of ours. All 16,009 units are present and accounted for."

Sept. 29: Pacific Paper Trail

• Electronic voting machines in California will be required to produce paper records for people to verify how they voted starting in 2006, under a bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) on Monday. The switchover is set to begin next January when the secretary of state will no longer be allowed to certify machines that do not include the ability to print out paper records. The law, sponsored by state Sens. Ross Johnson (R) and Don Perata (D), essentially codifies changes that California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (D) made to the voting system in response to reports of touch-screen voting irregularities. Several counties in California were required to stop using the systems until they complied with Shelley's mandate. Federal Computer Week reported that the law will not affect this year's presidential election, but it is expected to be in play for the March 2006 primary when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) is expected to run for reelection.

Government Technology in its California story reported that New Hampshire and Oregon have laws that require voting systems to allow manual recounts and that Illinois has a law requiring voter-verified paper trails. It also noted that Nevada is using an all-electronic voting system this November that includes the paper trail. Other states that will require paper trails by 2006 include California, Missouri, Ohio and Washington, Government Technology reported.

• U.S. District Court Judge Henry Adams ruled on Tuesday that elections officials in Duval County, Fla., must provide touch-screen voting machines in time for this November's election so that blind and physically disabled people can choose their candidates without someone else having to help them. The Florida Times-Union reported that the decision affects 57 precincts in the county, which includes the city of Jacksonville. City officials plan to appeal the ruling. As Jacksonville Assistant General Counsel Scott Makar told the paper: "It will be a virtual impossibility. ... If we ordered them right now, they'd take a month to get here." The Times-Union also reported that the cost estimates would range from $275,000 into the millions of dollars.

The Associated Press reported that the judge said "lawyers for disabled voters provided enough evidence at a hearing last week to persuade him to issue the order." Also from the AP: "The ruling stems from a 2001 suit in which three disabled voters alleged the county's optical scan machines didn't allow them to vote without help. The city must comply even while it appeals, said Ari Rothman, attorney for the disabled voters. 'We're going to ride them pretty hard,' he said. 'We'll do what we have to to make sure they comply.'"

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