Sunday, May 16, 2004

A Bad Run for Elections Firm

By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2004

This article profiles Diebold, one of the top e-voting machine vendors in the country, and the vendor that was the most severely impacted by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's decertification order. Diebold sold 14,000 touchscreens to four California counties that were not federally qualified for use in elections.



Last spring, the outlook for Diebold Election Systems Inc. couldn't have been brighter. The Texas-based company was the nation's leading producer of touch-screen voting machines and appeared likely to tap billions of dollars in federal and state funding set aside to replace the nation's aging and disparaged punch-card voting systems.

But management missteps, technological glitches and simple bad luck have made the company — whose voting machines are now banned in four California counties — a symbol for all that could go wrong in the nation's transition to electronic balloting.

In 10 months, the company's voting systems have been assailed as vulnerable to manipulation, its chief executive has faced questions about his Republican Party activism, some of its equipment malfunctioned in the March primary, and the California secretary of state has called for criminal and civil investigations of the company.


The firm stumbled a second time in August. Walden O'Dell, chief executive of the election system division's corporate parent Diebold Inc., sent invitations to a $1,000-a-plate political fundraiser at his Ohio home and announced that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president."

Some now question whether the company can impartially help to count millions of ballots in November. O'Dell insisted he would never use his position to influence an election and announced that he would no longer be politically active.

But to some, the company's connection to political activism is still troubling — particularly because 60,000 of its touch-screen machines have been sold in eight states. The machines, most of them in California, Georgia and Maryland, make up more than half of the roughly 100,000 electronic voting machines expected to be used in the November election.

"The [O'Dell] fundraising letter is the kind of incident that raised doubts in people's minds and adds to those perception problems, even if he has no intention of exercising his influence in an illegal manner," said voting systems watchdog Alexander.

Diebold spokesman David Bear said O'Dell regrets the stir that his invitation caused. He blamed the problem on O'Dell's lack of experience in politics and the media.

"He never thought that anyone would think there was a connection between his personal involvement and his business," Bear said.


Diebold officials say there has not been one documented security breach. They say they are willing to wait for the debate to play out in statehouses, courts and in Washington.

"We happen to be the ones out front and are getting some arrows," said Diebold's Swidarski. "We certainly didn't expect this public debate to unfold the way it has…. There's a lively and open debate. As a result, hopefully we'll end up with a situation that's improved."

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