February 03, 2004


Elise Ackerman, SJ Mercury News: Concerned that their
new $12.7 million Diebold electronic voting system had
developed a glitch, election officials turned to a
company representative who happened to be on hand.
Lucky he was there. For an unknown reason, the
computerized tally program had begun to award votes
for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to Burton, a socialist
from Southern California.

Thwart the Theft of a Second Presidential Election,
Show Up for Democracy in 2004: Defeat Bush (again!)


Posted on Sun, Feb. 01, 2004

By Elise Ackerman
Mercury News

Poll workers in Alameda County noticed something
strange on election night in October. As a computer
counted absentee ballots in the recall race, workers
were stunned to see a big surge in support for a
fringe candidate named John Burton.

Concerned that their new $12.7 million Diebold
electronic voting system had developed a glitch,
election officials turned to a company representative
who happened to be on hand. Lucky he was there. For an
unknown reason, the computerized tally program had
begun to award votes for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to
Burton, a socialist from Southern California.

Similar mishaps have occurred across the country since
election officials embraced electronic voting in the
wake of the Florida vote-counting debacle of 2000.

When Californians go to the polls next month to choose
a presidential candidate, many voters will cast a
virtual ballot by pressing a computer touch screen
that records their votes digitally. The only tangible
proof that a citizen has voted -- and how he voted --
will be fingerprints left on the machine's screen.

Electronic voting removes the risk of election
officials misinterpreting hanging chads. But it raises
another electoral peril: that a digital ballot box
might miscount votes without anyone noticing.

As the black box replaces the ballot box, concern is
growing that local officials are becoming dependent on
a handful of corporations to guarantee the integrity
and accuracy of elections.

Counties, including Santa Clara County, rely on these
voting-equipment companies to manage the software that
runs digital voting machines and counts electronic
votes -- and to fix things when they go wrong on
election night. The companies, however, consider such
software a trade secret, making independent
confirmation of contested elections difficult, if not

To guard against error and fraud, the state requires
that the companies only install approved software on
electronic voting machines. But in California, one of
the biggest voting-equipment companies, Diebold
Election Systems, provided 17 counties with
uncertified software that was used in recent

Review of practices

County election officers remain responsible for
overseeing electronic voting systems, but a review of
past elections and current practices raises questions
about how closely they're monitoring voting-equipment

``My biggest concern is the lack of accountability,''
said David Dill, a Stanford University
computer-science professor and a leading expert on
electronic voting.

Election officials and company representatives dismiss
concerns about computerized voting as overblown,
citing safeguards designed to ensure the reliability
of computerized voting systems.

``We have the best system available on the market. It
is secure and reliable and the voting public had a
wonderful experience,'' said Jesse Durazo, the
registrar of voters for Santa Clara County, which uses
touch-screen machines from Sequoia Voting Systems.

Alameda County officials still don't know why the
computer program failed on election night. In fact,
they only discovered the malfunction because they
could compare the paper absentee ballots the software
was counting to the computer's tally. The rest of the
county's voters cast electronic ballots. Nor were
election workers aware at the time that their
touch-screen machines were running unauthorized
Diebold software in violation of California law, as a
state investigation later discovered.

``There was something in the software,'' said Elaine
Ginnold, assistant registrar of voters for Alameda
County. Alameda County officials refused to allow the
Mercury News to review the software code used to test
its electronic voting system, saying it was a Diebold
trade secret.

``At no time were incorrect vote totals released,''
Diebold spokesman David Bear wrote in an e-mail. ``The
system is safe, secure and accurate.'' He attributed
the malfunction to a computer-server error and the
large number of candidates on the recall ballot.

``The counties are in over their heads,'' said Kim
Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation,
a Davis-based election watchdog group. ``People are
left depending on the vendors to tell them who won the

That is especially the case on election night, when
mechanical mishaps and buggy computer code could
create crises only company employees could resolve.

For instance, in Riverside County during the 2000
presidential election, a computer from Sequoia began
dropping touch-screen ballots from the vote tally. A
Sequoia salesman who was on hand intervened and fixed
the problem.

Unnoticed error

Two years later in Bernalillo County, N.M., neither
local election officials nor a Sequoia representative
noticed on election night that a programming error was
causing a computer running Microsoft SQL server
software to delete 25 percent of ballots cast by early
voters. Three days later, a Democratic Party lawyer
spotted a discrepancy between the number of voters who
signed in at the polls and the number of digital
ballots counted. Sequoia then managed to recover the
lost votes.

``They messed up,'' said Mary Herrera, the Bernalillo
County clerk, of Sequoia.

Responded Sequoia spokesman Alfie Charles: ``It was
just a bug in Microsoft that required an additional
step in converting data into the database format.
There was a patch that was later applied by

Alexander of the California Voter Foundation worries
that such incidents mean the machines could miscount
ballots or fail to register votes without anyone

Critics are alarmed that touch-screen voting systems
do not create a paper record that allows for a
physical recount of ballots. Rather, the machines
record votes on digital memory cartridges. When the
polls close, the cartridges are removed from the
touch-screen machines and plugged into a computer
which downloads and tabulates the voting data.

In November, California Secretary of State Kevin
Shelley ordered that by July 2006 all touch-screen
machines must print paper receipts so an election can
be independently audited. To meet that mandate, the
voting-equipment companies must manufacture new
state-approved hardware and software.

Computer scientists acknowledge a paper trail will
help ensure the accountability of electronic voting
systems. However, they say such a requirement does not
resolve concerns over counties' dependence on
voting-equipment companies and the security of
computerized voting.

Until voting machines produce paper receipts, the only
way a candidate can investigate questionable election
results is by examining the voting systems' software

But there's a catch: Election companies consider such
software a trade secret not open to public scrutiny --
or subject to challenge from losing candidates, as
Emil Danciu found out.

Danciu ran for city council in Boca Raton, Fla., in
March 2002. A popular former mayor of the seaside town
in Palm Beach County, Danciu expected to win in a
landslide but lost by 16 percentage points.

After some voters complained that Sequoia's
touch-screen machines appeared to have recorded
ballots cast for Danciu as votes for his opponents,
Danciu sued to obtain the Sequoia software code.

But Palm Beach County didn't have the code. ``All of
this stuff that they are asking for are all
proprietary items owned by the manufacturer,'' a
county attorney told the judge hearing the case. The
attorney argued that even if the county did have the
documents, it would be a felony to disclose ``trade

The judge denied Danciu's request for the software

U.S., state inspectors

County election officers and voting-equipment company
executives stress that voting machines and software
are carefully examined by federal and state inspectors
before receiving approval. Furthermore, they say,
pre-election testing ensures ballots are counted

``There are checks and balances to ensure nothing has
been compromised,'' said Charles, the Sequoia

The goal of the government certification process is to
make sure proprietary voting systems are accurate,
reliable and secure. The certification process is
crucial because it provides the only safeguard voters
have that the machines are performing the way the
election companies promise.

``Every single piece of hardware and software that is
used in an election is certified by our office,''
state election official John Mott-Smith reassured the
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last year.
``Every modification to those systems has to come back
for certification and testing if necessary.''

Yet eight months later, a state audit revealed that
voters in 17 California counties had cast ballots in
recent elections on Diebold systems that were running
software not approved by the state, according to a
December 2003 report. The Diebold software is used to
count both touch-screen electronic ballots and paper
ballots read by an optical scanner. Three of the
counties, including Los Angeles, the state's largest,
were using Diebold software that had not been
submitted for federal review.

Assurances by vendor

The audit also found that county election officials
had not independently verified they were using
certified software, as the law requires, but relied on
assurances by Diebold it was complying with state

Even tech-savvy counties like Santa Clara can have
difficulty tracking exactly what their
voting-equipment company is doing for them. Computer
scientists argue that a failure to keep close tabs on
modifications to the machines or their software opens
the door to tampering or the introduction of errors
that might show up on election night.

Following November's election in Santa Clara County,
Sequoia sent over a group of blue-coated technicians
to make adjustments to voting machines that
experienced battery problems. For three weeks, the
workers, employed by a Sequoia subcontractor, took
apart the machines, removing their circuit boards and
making adjustments.

Nevertheless, Santa Clara County officials didn't know
the name of the subcontractor and hadn't verified the
identities of the workers it hired when the Mercury
News made an inquiry. They also hadn't documented the
changes being made to the machines.

To find out such information, ``you'd have to contact
Sequoia,'' said Assistant Registrar of Voters Elaine

In interviews with the Mercury News, registrars
defended their close relationship with the companies.
The world of elections administration is a small one,
and the revolving door between state, federal and
county elections departments and the voting-equipment
companies has spun for years.

``I have a hundred percent confidence in Sequoia -- in
their integrity and honesty and their ability to keep
us compliant with the law of California,'' said Cathy
Darling, assistant registrar of Shasta County.

That attitude bothers Dill, the Stanford computer
scientist and electronic-voting expert. ``From a
computer-security perspective, handing over control of
an important part of the election, I think, is not a
good idea,'' said Dill. ``I'd prefer to see that kind
of control in the hands of local officials who are
accountable to elected representatives.''

Contact Elise Ackerman at eackerman@mercurynews.com or
(408) 271-3774.

Posted by richard at February 3, 2004 11:21 AM