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Report: Vendor Control Undermines Elections

• August 19, 2008 • 11:05 PM

Nonprofit group claims vote-counting machine vendors are the ones in control during some elections.

A new report by the nonprofit VotersUnite.org lays out an anecdotal case for how corporations that make and service electronic voting machines have gained substantial control of the American election system, and it outlines what public officials can do as the November presidential election approaches.

The report arrives as a growing number of mainstream media outlets have joined Miller-McCune.com in examining flaws and irregularities in e-voting procedures across the nation, leading the number of voters expected to use touch-screen voting this November to fall from 44 percent to 36 percent.

Within the 53-page report, “Vendors are Undermining the Structure of U.S. Elections,” voting rights activists led by VotersUnite.org co-director Ellen Theisen present several case studies to illustrate the pervasive control the makers of voting machines have over election administration in many states.

Complex electronic voting machines — both optical scanners that count paper ballots and direct-recording electronic voting machines — require a level of expertise to maintain that election officials often do not possess.

Compounding this, vendors limit access to the inner workings of their machines due to claims of “proprietary information” that the companies seek to protect.

“The election officials are accountable, but in some cases it’s the vendors that are actually running the election,” Theisen said. With computer scientists at leading universities showing that most electronic vote-counting machines fail regularly — as Miller-McCune.com previously reported — oversight becomes exceptionally important.

Case in point: After a technician for Election Systems & Software allegedly caused an error in tabulating the ballots in Angelina County, Texas, in March 2008, the county ordered a recount. But in order to conduct the recount, county election officials needed the company’s help. At the same time, ES&S forced administrators to agree to continue paying for maintenance and administration through November. Now the county is incapable of running elections without the help of the corporation that made the machines.

“I guess you can say my hands are tied,” wrote Thelma Sherman, Angelina County election administrator, in a letter to ES&S obtained by Black Box Voting, a nonprofit voter rights group.

The same holds true in other states such as Hawaii, which is so “dependent on a vendor to run elections that an officer of the state believes delaying cancellation of an invalid contract with a vendor is necessary to ensure that the 2008 elections can be held,” according to the report.

A November 2003 audit of 13 California counties found that Diebold, now Premier Election Solutions, had installed uncertified equipment without the knowledge of state and local election administrators. In San Diego and other counties, the machines caused extraordinary malfunctions in the 2004 election.

In Miller County, Ark., election administrator Robby Selph said he resigned in 2007 because ES&S technicians were so difficult to work with.

“They leave races off the ballot for us to correct, they can’t program their software to work and you have to hand add the results,” he told the Texarkana Gazette at the time.

The report elaborates on these and other stories of elections gone awry because of corporate involvement. A complete list of election malfunctions can be found here.

Researchers then offer solutions by highlighting the story in Luzerne County, Pa., where election director Leonard Piazza in 2006 refused to allow ES&S to service its voting machines. Instead, Piazza and his staff perform most maintenance functions and ballot design programming without letting vendor representatives upgrade the machines or come near county precincts during an election.

It’s not too late, Theisen said, for more public officials to take election administration into their own hands come November.

David Rosenfeld
David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.

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