Thursday, June 17, 2004

E-voting regulators often join other side when leaving office

By Elise Ackerman, San Jose Mercury News, June 15, 2004


Shortly after leaving office, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones sent letters to each member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, reassuring them that the electronic voting machines they wanted to buy were reliable.

``The touch-screen system Santa Clara is considering purchasing has been been successfully used in Riverside County since 1999,'' Jones wrote in January 2003.

One month after Jones sent the letters, the Republican became a paid consultant for Sequoia Voting Systems, a touch-screen manufacturer that was bidding for Santa Clara County's $19 million contract and ultimately won it.


While a revolving door between government service and private-sector jobs is common, some observers argue such cozy familiarity has led public officials to overlook flaws in controversial electronic voting systems, putting elections at risk.


Jones, who is running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Barbara Boxer in the November election, explained in an interview that he wrote the letters to Santa Clara County supervisors because he wanted to defend ``a technology whose time had come.'' He stressed he had not talked with Sequoia about a job at the time and was not writing on the company's behalf.

Jones said Sequoia paid him $10,000 a month from March to August 2003 in exchange for talking to people who wanted to know about touch-screen machines. He said he did not earn any bonuses for helping to secure contracts.

"I talked to people who called me,'' he said. "I was not interested in selling.''

Santa Clara County registrar of voters Jesse Durazo said he didn't see Jones' letters. But he noted the two months that Jones waited before becoming a Sequoia consultant did not seem like a sufficient cooling-off period. "The public at large should feel that there is no undue influence,'' Durazo said.


Former secretaries of state from Florida and Georgia also have lobbied on behalf of voting-equipment manufacturers. Lower-ranking elections officials have taken jobs with the companies as well. Three of Jones' former staffers and two of his predecessor's staffers work for the three largest voting-machine companies.

"It made sense for me because my expertise has been in voting technology and public education,'' said Alfie Charles, a former Jones' press aide who is now a Sequoia spokesman.

For others, joining voting equipment companies has proven lucrative. Former Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham scored a $172,000 bonus from Election Systems & Software (ES&S) after helping the Nebraska-based company win a $17 million contract from Broward County, Fla. She also earned undisclosed amounts from sales of electronic voting systems to Miami-Dade and 10 other counties.


In addition to hiring former secretaries of state and their staffs, voting equipment companies help pay for a multitude of industry conferences, including those sponsored by organizations like the National Association of Secretaries of State, or NASS.

At these events, companies routinely underwrite everything from trade exhibits to dinner dances. Last year, Accenture invited election officials to "an authentic Island Lobster Bake'' at NASS' annual summer meeting in Maine. A Bermuda-based consulting firm, Accenture was developing an Internet-based voting system for the Pentagon and putting together voter databases for individual states. Other companies sponsored an evening dessert cruise and performance by the Maine State Theater.

"Personally, I've known a lot of these people for a long time, and we've become a family,'' said Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's secretary of state and NASS' president-elect.

According to an NASS spokeswoman, the fees paid by corporate sponsors such as Diebold, ES&S, IBM and Accenture account for more than half of the association's $420,000 budget.

NASS does not regulate electronic voting. However, many of the association's individual members are responsible for administering election laws in their states, including rules governing the use of electronic voting systems.

Last summer, when independent computer scientists published an analysis detailing serious security flaws in a Diebold touch-screen voting system, the association asked Sequoia spokesman Charles for help in drafting a response.


While equipment makers have routinely sought the support of state officials, some of the closest relationships exist on the county level, where some underfunded elections departments depend on voting equipment companies to set up ballots and troubleshoot on election day.

"Years ago, when I worked in the secretary of state's office, I remember looking at the small counties, and I thought, `Gee, if it wasn't for the vendors, these elections would never get pulled off,' '' said Alameda County registrar of voters Brad Clark.

Dependence breeds loyalty. One of electronic voting's strongest defenders is Mischelle Townsend of Riverside County, the first California registrar to introduce touch-screen machines. Last summer, Townsend flew to Florida to appear in an infomercial sponsored by Sequoia, the manufacturer of Riverside's voting machines.

Townsend disclosed the $1,080 trip as a gift but declined to discuss it with the Mercury News. Other registrars said their voting equipment suppliers have offered them tickets to football games and invited them to restaurants.

"Because the election officials have a close relationship with the voting machine companies, they believe them and they trust them, instead of performing their functions with due diligence,'' contends Will Doherty, an executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation, an advocacy group that has been critical of touch-screens.

Clark acknowledges that may be true. Last year, Diebold installed uncertified software on voting equipment used in Alameda County, a move that could have jeopardized the election.

"It made me be aware of the need to more carefully monitor what the vendor was doing,'' Clark said. ``I should have checked more carefully.''

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