Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Calif. Joins Electronic Voting Lawsuit

By Rachel Konrad, Associated Press, September 8, 2004


California Attorney General Bill Lockyer joined a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that voting equipment company Diebold Inc. sold the state shoddy hardware and software, exposing elections to hackers and software bugs.

California's Alameda County also joined the false claims case, originally filed by a computer programmer and voting rights advocate. Faulty equipment in the March primary forced at least 6,000 of 316,000 voters in the county east of San Francisco to use backup paper ballots instead of the paperless voting terminals.

The lawsuit is the first e-voting case to rely on an obscure legal provision for whistleblowers who help the government identify fraud. Programmer Jim March and activist Bev Harris, who first filed the case in November, are seeking full reimbursement for Diebold equipment purchased in California.

Alameda County has spent at least $11 million on paperless touchscreen machines. State election officials have spent at least $8 million.

Because the lawsuit relies on an obscure provision called "qui tam," March and Harris could collect up to 30 percent of a reimbursement. The state could collect triple damages from Diebold, or settle out of court.

The attorney general's decision to join the e-voting lawsuit is unusual. The government declines to participate in about 70 percent of all qui tams filed, said Bob Bauman, a private investigator and former government consultant.

"The state clearly believes there's merit to the case," said Berkeley, Calif., attorney Lowell Finley, who represents March and Harris. "This is a significant event and good news for us."

Thomas W. Swidarski, Diebold senior vice president, said the state's intervention could lead to a "fair and dispassionate examination of the issues raised in the case."

Also Tuesday, the attorney general announced he would not pursue criminal charges against Diebold. Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned one Diebold system after he found uncertified software that "jeopardized" the outcome of elections in several counties, and state voting officials began considering filing a criminal lawsuit against the company.

"We fully cooperated with the state as it looked into the issues and have always believed that the attorney general would reach this conclusion," Swidarski said.

Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said the decision to join the lawsuit came after months of investigating problems with Diebold equipment. In the March primary, 573 of 1,038 polling places in San Diego County failed to open on time because of computer malfunctions.

The state will likely file its own complaint or an amended complaint within several weeks, if the parties don't settle out of court, Dresslar said.

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