Friday, December 5, 2008

Software glitch in Humboldt County yields inaccurate election results

Humboldt County, California implemented a new election transparency project this year, which has produced some startling results. According to this story in the Dec. 5 Times-Standard (a local paper serving Eureka and the North Coast) by Thaddeus Greenson, the project uncovered a glitch in the vendor's (Premier, formerly Diebold) vote-counting software that left nearly 200 ballots out of the certified results. Details are provided in the excerpts below.

Kudos to Humboldt registrar Carolyn Crnich for implementing the transparency project in the first place and going above and beyond the call of duty to provide the public with confidence in the accuracy of election results. And kudos also go to local election verification activist Kevin Collins, who has worked for years in Humboldt County to advance election transparency, as well as volunteer MItch Trachtenberg, who wrote the software that allows Humboldt's ballots to be publicly analyzed online. (According to the blog site for the project, ballot images for the recent election will be available online in the next few days).

The first of its kind Humboldt Election Transparency Project has uncovered a glitch in the county election's software that resulted in almost 200 ballots not being counted and the county certifying inaccurate election results.

The 197 uncounted ballots would not have changed the outcome of any of the election's races, according to Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich.

Crnich said the company that provides the county's election software, Premier Elections Solutions (formerly known as Diebold Election Systems, Inc.), seems to have known about the glitch at least since 2004.

Crnich said a discrepancy in vote counts came to her attention after the election was officially certified by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, while she and volunteers were preparing ballot images for the transparency project.

The basic idea behind the first-of-its-kind transparency project is fairly simple: every ballot cast in an election is passed through an optical scanner after being officially counted and the images are then placed online and available for download.
Software, created by volunteer Mitch Trachtenberg, then allows viewers to sort the ballots by precinct or race to conduct recounts at their pleasure.

Shortly after the election was officially certified Monday, Crnich said she got an e-mail from Trachtenberg saying something was amiss.

”(Eureka's) Precinct 1E-45 seemed out of kilter,” she said. “The count justwasn't adding up.”

After double checking all of the precinct's logs and ballots, Crnich said she discovered a deck of 197 vote-by-mail ballots for the precinct that had been run through the ballot counting optical scanner, but did not seem to appear in the final vote tallies.
After exchanging several calls with Premier Elections Solutions, Crnich said she was told that the software begins counting decks of ballots at zero, and that sometimes when a deck is deleted from the machine due to normal complications, the software also deletes the Deck Zero, which in this case was the vote-by-mail ballots from Precinct 1E-45.

Crnich said she then called the Secretary of State's Office.

”They were very interested and actually offered great congratulations on this project,” Crnich said.

Crnich said she later learned from the Secretary of State's Office that two other California counties, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, use the same version of GEMS elections software (version 1.18.19), as well as several entire states, including Maryland.


Crnich said it appears that Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties had been informed of the software glitch, and were told how to work around it to avoid having any effect on the election counts.

The Secretary of State's Office, however, had not been notified of the problem despite having conducted a top-to-bottom review of the state's elections systems in 2006, according to Crnich.

The scariest part of all this, said Trachtenberg, is that the issue would have never been uncovered without the transparency project.

”Has this happened in other counties or other states?” he asked. “How can we know?”

Crnich also said she was informed by the Secretary of State's Office that this version of Premier Elections Solutions GEMS software was in use in the highly contested 2000 Florida election before the problem surfaced.

Uncovering the glitch also seems to lend credence to groups of people across the country who, for years, have criticized placing the nation's elections in the hands of private companies that dispense vote counting machines that operate with secrete, proprietary codes that, in many cases, leave no paper trail.

Kevin Collins, who volunteers with the transparency project and is one of its charter members, said this never would have been uncovered without Crnich's dedication to transparent elections.

”She deserves a huge amount of credit for devising a system for doing something in Humboldt County that isn't being done anywhere else, and that's auditing 100 percent of the ballots,” Collins said.

The uncovered glitch means little for Humboldt County's election, as it won't change the outcome of any races and, consequently won't even require a re-certification of the election's results, but it has implications that could reverberate throughout the world of elections.

”You just can't trust a secret program to count this stuff because programmers make mistakes,” Trachtenberg said. “People have been complaining about secret machine counts and the companies have said these folks are nuts. But, the first time (the transparency project) is done in a general election, it comes up with a problem -- a problem (Premier Elections Solutions) has known about for four years.”

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