Sunday, May 16, 2004

California e-voting quandry unravels

Tri-Valley Herald Online - Local & Regional News


As state prosecutors weigh criminal and civil cases against Diebold Election Systems Inc. for using uncertified software in California elections, the state faces a potentially bigger problem: Other brands of voting software that record and count more than a million Californians' votes also may lack state or federal approval.

State elections officials acknowledge that the state failed to maintain a master list of tested and certified voting software from as early as 1999 to the spring of 2003, a period of rapid evolution for computerized voting systems in California.

In those years, the administration of then-Secretary of State and current U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones approved new generations of voting machines. But scant record of state certification has been found for the all-important software inside, running everything from touchscreens and optical scanning machines to vote tallying and reporting of election results.


In San Francisco, Colusa, San Mateo and Stanislaus counties, a recent state audit shows, ES&S runs the vote-tallying and elections-reporting software on election day. There, working behind the scenes, the nation's largest voting-systems corporation -- under varying degrees of local supervision -- counts and reports the choices of almost a million registered voters, using software for which no clear state approval can be found. Elections chiefs in San Francisco and San Mateo said they had no documented certification for their voting software. San Francisco elections director John Arntz said he was certain the system was certified.

"You talk to ES&S about this. They're the experts on the software and the system," Arntz said.

In a recent review of proposed modifications to San Francisco's voting system to allow instant runoff voting, state analysts suggested that none of the current voting software used to read ballots, tally votes and report results appears to have undergone federal testing and approval.

The optical scanning machines were certified by California in 1996 for a defunct company but only for use with a certain type of vote-tallying software. ES&S since has changed to new vote-tallying software and appears to have changed the optical scanning software as well. San Mateo County uses a nearly identical system.

Officials in both counties say their tests and state-mandated recounts of1 percent of ballots show the systems are accurate.

One of the latest California officials to handle voting-system testing and certification is Lou Dedier, who now works for ES&S as vice president and California general manager. He referred all questions to ES&S' public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard Inc.

Fleishman's Becky Vollmer initially directed inquiries back to California's Office of the Secretary of State.

Given three weeks by the Oakland Tribune, neither California elections officials nor ES&S officials nor Fleishman-Hillard could supply a full, detailed list of state-approved ES&S voting software.


California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has launched criminal and civil investigations of the Texas-based firm for alleged violations of several election laws, most concerning the deployment of uncertified software in its client counties as of late 2003.

Diebold attorneys knew that a second, more sweeping audit of California voting systems was underway and hinted at mounting a plausible defense of selective prosecution: The state wasn't enforcing its own law, and other voting-system vendors -- and many California counties -- were doing what Diebold was doing.

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