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Part of vote blame on Orr
Election report faults county clerk, technology firm

By John McCormick
Tribune staff reporter
Published January 9, 2007

Cook County Clerk David Orr and Sequoia Voting Systems are both to blame for vote-tabulation delays that triggered confusion and distrust following the November election, a panel of experts has concluded.

Led by retired federal Judge Abner Mikva, the Orr-appointed panel found that a combination of "technology failures in multiple areas" and a lack of testing triggered a spiraling series of glitches that left some results unclear for days.

The group's findings, documented in a 29-page report obtained by the Tribune, suggest that much work is needed if similar problems are to be prevented in the February and April municipal elections.

"Although technology problems occurring on Election Night constituted the primary cause of the reporting delays, operational shortcomings in the process leading up to Election Day also played a role in failing to understand and thus mitigate the risks," the report said.

Members of the County Board were to be briefed Tuesday, as California-based Sequoia waits on more than $20 million held back by the county and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners because of similar problems in past elections.

The report dealt only with issues experienced in suburban Cook County. Chicago had plenty of its own voting problems, but the city's election officials built a more effective backup system to handle traffic when roughly half of the precincts were unable to wirelessly transmit results.

"The overall system was put together in a way that has not been tested for an election that is the scale of Cook County," said panel member Xiaoping Jia, a software engineering professor at DePaul University. "A lot of failure occurred."

As the polls closed at 7 p.m., the first failure point emerged. It was the complexly named Hybrid, Activator, Accumulator & Transmitter (HAAT) machine, designed in part to transmit vote totals from precincts via cellular signal to a central office downtown. Problems were found in its communications software and design.

"The flawed user interface on the HAAT led 90 percent of election judges to believe that they had successfully transmitted, whereas only 56 percent had actually done so," the report said.

Sequoia President Jack Blaine said his company likely contributed to the problem by improperly programming the precinct machine to attempt to dial into the county only once.

"We made a mistake in the configuration for only one attempt," he said. "That had a material impact."

Blaine acknowledged that improvements to the machine are needed, but he said he disputes that it was the "principal cause of the fiasco on Election Night."

Until the root problems with the machine are corrected, the report says the county "should fully expect similar or perhaps even worse performance in future elections and should strongly consider alternatives to wireless transmissions."

Because of the machine's shortcomings, the panel recommends that the county be prepared to handle up to 100 percent of precinct transmissions from backup stations around the county.

But the 19 locations the county had for the November election, also proved to be a failure point. Only three stations were able to successfully transmit their results downtown, the report found.

The city had high-speed data connections at its centers, while the county had a network that depended on wireless signals, which weren't capable of moving data as quickly.

County officials maintain they had never been told not to use wireless access, but Sequoia had suggested that a wired approach was "the best solution."

Orr said he plans to have wired connections at backup stations for all future elections. He also plans to hire a "technical program manager" to oversee all electronic aspects of the election system and require Sequoia to fix its hardware and software.

"This panel is telling us that we have to do a better oversight job," he said. "There is plenty of blame to go around and we plan to do our part."

The county also will avoid uploading early voting totals onto servers immediately after the polls close, a move that created a brief computing traffic jam.

In preparing its report, the panel heavily leveraged reporting work done by Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, a firm Sequoia hired after the election at a cost of more than $300,000 to conduct a forensic examination of what went wrong.

A report prepared by Diamond and also obtained by the Tribune shows that more than a third of the precinct-tabulation machines did not even attempt to make a connection after the polls closed.

The panel also found that Sequoia, in a more than $50 million system sold to Chicago and Cook County, had stitched together components from its own shelves and that of its parent company in a way that failed to seamlessly work together.

"The panel recommends that the county require Sequoia to document that all component pieces of any end-to-end solution are warranted to work correctly with each other," the report said.

That information transfer may become more challenging. Smartmatic Corp., a company with strong ties to Venezuela, recently announced that it plans to sell Sequoia to avoid controversy over the foreign ownership of an election equipment manufacturer.

- - -

Dissecting Election Night meltdown

Here's a brief look at what went wrong in the November election in suburban Cook County.

Problem: 44 percent of the transmitters at polling places failed.

Finding: Likely caused by a problem inherent to the device itself.

Problem: Processing early votes at the same time as Election Day votes.

Finding: Vote-tabulation in the server was slowed when early-vote cartridges were input simultaneously.

Problem: Backup systems failed to work reliably.

Finding: Software and wireless systems were not well-suited to work together and were not fully tested under real election conditions.

Problem: Slow processing by Sequoia's tallying software.

Finding: Performed outside range of reasonable expectations.

Sources: Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, Cook County clerk's election review panel


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