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"Laughable failures" in Denver election: Experts also blame voting woes on oblivious officials
By George Merritt and Katy Human, Denver Post Staff Writers, November 30, 2006

Software that Denver used to check in voters on Election Day did not "meet, or even approach, professional standards," consultants told a city investigative panel Wednesday.

Experts hired to study Denver's problem-plagued election also criticized election officials for failing to catch obvious problems, and they expressed surprise at the "casual" attitude of those running a critical system of democracy.

"These now appear to be laughable failures," said panel member Hubert Farbes, an attorney with Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber and a former assistant attorney general.

Poorly designed software for checking voters' registration status overwhelmed Denver's computer system, making it difficult for election judges to process voters and leading to waits as long as three hours.

Officials estimate that more than 20,000 voters didn't vote because of the delays.

Although the voter check-in software was the main cause of Election Day woes, said consultant Fred Hessler with Fujitsu Consulting, he and other speakers outlined failures throughout Denver's election system:

Election officials rushed to switch from hundreds of traditional neighborhood precincts to 55 vote centers, saying it was the only way they could meet new federal voting standards.

Information technology at the Denver Election Commission was so "substandard" that a central server was not protected from power surges and lacked up-to-date security.

Officials failed to consider free, proven software used to process voters in Larimer County since 2003. Instead, the commission hired Sequoia Voting Systems to build a custom program for checking in voters.

A Sequoia vice president said Denver was using his company's software in a manner it was not designed for.

Hessler's audit confirmed neither Sequoia nor Denver officials ever adequately tested the "electronic pollbook" software. That software was used by election workers at vote centers to check registrations through the election commission's central computer system.

"We were able to demonstrate severe degradation of the system within five minutes" of testing, Hessler said. "These are not exotic flaws. They are very basic."

A registration database

Hessler's testimony at times drew smirks and laughter from some of the 12 technical experts and community and business leaders appointed by Mayor John Hickenlooper to investigate what went wrong on Election Day. The panel is expected to make recommendations for reforming Denver's elections, now run by an independent three-member commission.

Sequoia vice president Howard Cramer said the software his company created did what it was built to do.

"In hindsight, I think more was needed," he said, when pressed by panel members about whether he felt his company had designed an adequate system.

The technology was originally designed as a voter-registration database, but Denver paid Sequoia to modify it to communicate between e-pollbook laptops and the central voter database on Election Day.

Cramer told the panel that news outlets were already reporting major problems on Election Day by the time he understood Denver was using Sequoia software to communicate between vote centers and the central database.

That surprised some panel members.

"I'm stunned ... that they could sit there and tell us that they did not know what they made," said Jenny Rose Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause.

There were early signs that Sequoia's software would not work, Hessler said. In training sessions, e-pollbooks were so unreliable that election judges studied paper images of computer screens instead of real computers.

Hessler also criticized Denver election officials, who told him federal laws - such as the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 - forced them to switch to vote centers.

"HAVA applies nationwide, yet we see no rush to the vote center" elsewhere, he said. "It seems to have been accepted (in Denver) as a bit of folk wisdom."

Denver election officials have said they switched to vote centers to ensure voting accommodations for the disabled as required by HAVA.

Software nixed for big city

Hessler said he also was baffled by Denver's rejection of free pollbook software used in Larimer County, which pioneered vote centers in 2003 without problems.

Election officials told Hessler that Larimer's technology was not "appropriate" or "robust enough" for the big city.

But a brief check by election officials would have demonstrated the Larimer system could handle a million voters, Hessler said.

"They were able to run Chicago if they needed to," he said.

After sitting through more than an hour of criticism, Election Commission executive director John Gaydeski said he'd heard nothing that surprised him.

"In hindsight, it's nice to know, but we were so focused on two elections right in a row," he said in reference to the Aug. 8 primary and Nov. 7 general election.

The panel will develop final recommendations on Dec. 13.

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