Friday, December 17, 2004

OH: Elections official doesn't believe computer was tampered with

By Malia Rulon, Associated Press, Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Ohio elections official whose sworn statement led to a request for an FBI investigation into possible vote tampering says she doesn't think anything improper happened during preparations for a recount of the presidential election.

Sherole Eaton, the deputy director of the Hocking County Board of Elections, wrote in a signed affidavit that a software technician took apart the county's main computer tabulator to fix the battery, then put it back together and told her not to turn it off.

Her story prompted Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, to ask authorities to impound the computer and investigate "likely illegal election tampering."

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has called on Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to secure the county's computer, order a hand count of their ballots and investigate all counties where computer technicians worked on the computers before the recount.

"The integrity of using the board's computerized tabulating system to conduct the recount of the presidential election has been seriously compromised," wrote Donald McTigue, the lawyer handling the recount for the Kerry campaign.

Eaton, a Democrat, said she signed the affidavit in an attempt to document what happened.

"I never did suspect fraud and I don't now. That wasn't my intent," she said Thursday. "I was just bringing it forward. I'm not a whistle-blower."

President Bush won Hocking County in southeast Ohio by 762 votes over Democrat John Kerry, according to certified results. A statewide recount requested by third-party candidates began this week amid allegations of voting irregularities. Hocking County's recount of punch-card ballots resulted in one extra vote each for Bush and Kerry.

The FBI had not decided whether an investigation was warranted, spokesman Mike Brooks said Thursday. Blackwell and the county's Democratic prosecutor, Larry Beal, planned no investigation.

Brett Rapp, president of TRIAD Governmental Systems Inc., says the visit was standard procedure during a recount, something the Ohio secretary of state's office confirmed Thursday.

Secretary of State spokesman Carlo LoParo said every county elections board contracts with vendors to prepare their election machines. TRIAD wrote and maintains voting software used in 41 of Ohio's 88 counties.

Ohio law requires that only results from the race being recounted can appear on the county's tabulation forms. That means technicians must configure the recount file so the tabulator counts that race, LoParo said.

The software itself is not changed, Rapp said.

In Hocking County, problems arose because the county's 14-year-old Dell computer, which is used to tabulate ballots, failed to boot up. The battery was low, so the computer didn't save the information it needed to tell the hard drive how to operate, Rapp said.

To get the computer running so it could be configured for a recount, the technician had to remove the hard drive and put it into a separate, newer computer that had a viable battery to get a readout of the hard drive specifications.

The technician then re-installed the hard drive into the original computer, using those specifications to tell the computer how to communicate with the hard drive and finish booting up. To protect the battery, the computer must remain turned on, which is why the technician told Eaton to keep it running, Rapp said.

Computer experts say the company's explanation of the situation is plausible, but it underscores problems with electronic voting such as overdependence on technology and the prevalent use of outdated hardware.

"Allowing people to tweak the computers before a recount opens up possibilities for fraud," said David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said problems can arise when elections officials don't have a system for dealing with technology breakdowns.

"We're left in the situation where the election official is taking the technician's word for things, and yet, we don't know who this person is," Alexander said.

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