Hard Times for Voting Machine Vendors

120px-Desi_accuvote-tsx_vvpat.jpgElection 2008 passed uneventfully, at least for appearance’s sake. Although voters stood on long lines and administrators wrestled with machine malfunctions, it appeared that e-voting technology withstood the pressure of a robust voting season. But lest we not get too optimistic about the technology, reports have been trickling in about the inaccuracy of e-voting systems and the costs to repair them. In mid December, officials in Montgomery County, Ohio reported that tabulation software used with Premier Election Solutions’ (formerly Diebold) touch-screen voting machines failed to count five votes in the city of Trotwood. Officials discovered that although the five votes were recorded to a memory card inside the machine, the votes were not counted by the tabulation software when the memory card was loaded to the tabulation server. Premier’s Global Election Management System (GEMS) is the tabulation software that counts votes from memory cards. Ohio officials had no idea about the problem until a month after the November election, only learning about it when officials put the memory cards back into the voting machines to conduct a manual audit. Premier’s GEMS is apparently responsible for dropped votes in a California county and the source of previous counting problems in Ohio’s primary season.

And just when Premier might have thought the five uncounted votes would seem trivial enough to escape public outrage, Maryland came calling. Maryland’s Attorney General has recently filed suit against Premier, seeking reimbursement of $8.5 million the state allegedly spent to repair security problems in its e-voting machines. As Maryland AG Doug Gansler explains, the lawsuit will resolve Premier’s outstanding bill of $4 million to fix problems in its machines and the state’s claim for reimbursement. “They should pay even more than [the millions we seek] because the system they sold us [for $90 million], where they said we would have reliable results that these are accurate machines and they could not be tampered with, has proven to be not true,” noted Gansler.

Maryland has decided to scrap the touch-screen machines in favor of optical scanners, which have the advantage of leaving behind a paper trail that can be audited without having to worry about faulty printers. But, oddly, Maryland has chosen to purchase those optical machines from none other than Premier, the very company that it is suing for broken promises and faulty machinery. This begs the larger question: are states responsible for this e-voting predicament? When Congress appropriated billions of dollars under the Help America Vote Act to allow states to buy electronic machines that would put the memory of hanging chads behind us, states went on a mad spending spree, buying first and asking questions later. Contracts required little of the vendors, leaving states in the difficult spot that they are in today with inaccurate and insecure voting machinery. Now, they seem to be headlong into the same mistakes. Voting experts Aaron Burstein and Joseph Lorenzo Hall are studying the contracts that states enter with voting vendors and I look forward to the light that their work will shed on fixing this difficult problem.

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2 Responses

  1. jhn says:

    Technology is hard. This is why real geeks don’t trust it. I’m a real geek. I have 2 backups of all of my files because I know that hard drives are inherently unstable. I keep all my important data as plain text because I know that binary bucket formats can’t be trusted long-term.

    Also, your average “IT professional” knows less than the typical Slashdot commenter. The average touch screen voting machine is a technological joke, start to finish. VBA code, Microsoft software. What do you expect?

  2. Danielle Citron says:

    I could not agree more!