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Unilect vote device causes uproar

By David Morrill,   Oakland Tribune   24 November 2004

DUBLIN - EVER SINCE the touch-screen voting system known as the Patriot was introduced in 1992, it came with the claim "never lost even a single vote."

Now, because of an election-day debacle in Carteret County, N.C., that is no longer the case.

In this election, held Nov. 2, one of the Patriot control units manufactured by Dublin-based Unilect Corp. failed to record 4,532 of the 7,538 ballots cast on the device.

Not only were votes lost, but the state race for agriculture commisioner is separated by about 2,600 votes fewer than the number of votes that were not counted. As a result, this race was not certified with the state's other election results Tuesday.

Because state law prohibits running a partial re-vote, it is possible that the entire state may have to vote for this race again.

"This has been a devastating blow, as people in this county are very troubled that some of their votes have been lost," said Ed Pond, chairman of Carteret's board of elections.

Unilect was founded in 1989 because Jack Gerbel, now president and chief executive, believed there was a significant need for better voting equipment. With about 20 employees, the company's entire business is elections. For this reason, the fact that his company is now at the center of the controversy is hard for him to swallow.

"It's a sad, sad story, and we understand that this is a very serious problem," said Gerbel. "We've been getting e-mails telling us 'what a terrible company we are' because of what happened."

Here's how the problem likely happened, according to Gerbel. About a month prior to the election, Unilect's chief software engineer told a Carteret County technician that the Patriot system would be able to accept up to 10,428 ballots. The machine, which costs about $3,000, serves as a hub for several voting screens attached to it.

In order for the machine to accept this many ballots, a "one-key change" would have needed to be made that would the revision level of the machine. This wasn't mentioned.

"When he said more than 10,000 votes could be accepted, that was true, but he didn't add the 'if ...'," Gerbel said.

Because this revision was not made, the machine was set up only to record 3,005 ballots. When the machine reached capacity, the control unit should have read "Voter Log Full", but the election office staff said they never saw such a message. To compound the problem, even though the Patriot was full, voters still touched in their votes on the screens with the belief that they were being counted. In hindsight, the machines should have been made so that all the voting screens shut down when the memory was full, Gerbel said.

Although Gerbel understands how significant it is to lose votes, he is confident that the machines themselves aren't to blame because it was a human error.

"The machines did exactly as they were directed to," he said. "It's just in this case, it was programmed to only store 3,005 ballots."

Unilect isn't the only company that has been associated with problems with electronic voting systems, but the close state race and high number of lost votes makes this case unique.

"There's a whole aura of great anger that surrounds our county right now," Pond said.

For most companies, such blunders would be fatal to the business, but the fact that Unilect is run by one of the most reputable and experienced people in the election equipment industry could be its saving grace.

"Gerbel has a history and a reputation that he knows his stuff and people seem willing to take what he says at face value," said Doug Chapin, an industry expert with Electionline.org. "Unilect's reputation is pretty much synonymous with Gerbel's."

Gerbel's been involved with the industry since 1965, and at one time had the distinction of personally selling more election systems than anyone else in the country. Also, the fact that the actual problem has a traceable cause and a traceable effect helps Unilect as well because it should be easy to fix in the future, Chapin said.

"So far I haven't seen anything that would indicate that Unilect will be punished by the market for their mistake," Chapin said.

Since the election, several customers in Virginia have purchased equipment from Unilect.

Unilect's machines have been linked other problems. However, the issue had to do with the coding not done by his company, Gerbel said.

Carteret County has used the Unilect machines for several elections, and Pond wasn't aware of any problems in the past.

He wouldn't place the blame of the situation on Unilect, or comment on whether the County's business relationship with the company would continue, but he did say, "I have less faith in electronic voting now than I did before the election."

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