RealTime IT News

Concerns Deepen on Electronic Voting

CORRECTED: Sequoia Voting Systems, a major vendor of electronic voting machines in the United States, rejected allegations that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez may have manipulated the vote tally in a Chicago election earlier this year.

Also in response to the allegations, the Oakland, Calif.-based company has asked the Treasury department, which had been conducting an informal inquiry since this spring, to clear its name by launching a formal investigation into its relationship with Smartmatic, its parent company.

"No foreign government has ever held a stake in Smartmatic," said Antonio Mugica, CEO of Smartmatic.

"We want to be sure we can continue to be successful in the marketplace, and so we felt it was important to clear these allegations once and for all, hopefully," Mugica added during a press conference held in Washington D.C.

Smartmatic, a privately held company which acquired Sequoia in March 2005, is 79 percent owned by Mugica, who is a dual Venezuelan-Spanish national.

The basis of the allegations, according to Mugica, arises from 2004, when Smartmatic headed a consortium that won a bid to provide electronic voting machines for the recall referendum held in Venezuela that year.

Bitza, one of Smartmatic's partners in the consortium, had previously accepted a small business loan of $150 million from the government of Venezuela.

One of the conditions of the loan was that a government representative sit on the board of Bitza.

That, said Mugica, is the extent of the relationship between Sequoia and Hugo Chavez.

Also according to Mugica, the government representative never even showed up for any board meetings.

Smartmatic acquired Bitza in 2005, Mugica said.

The allegations of potential manipulation arose in a March 2006 letter to the Treasury department from Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who expressed concern about the role that a company connected to Chavez could have played in determining the outcome of the Chicago vote.

Jack Blaine, president of Sequoia, deflected the insinuation that votes could have been miscounted.

He said issues with its machines in Chicago occurred because "19 new pieces of electronic gear went into the polling places."

"All the votes were counted and there were no allegations of fraud taking place whatsoever," said Blaine.

The allegations that vote results could be manipulated through a Trojan or other malware could not come at a worse time, not only for Sequoia, but for the voting systems industry in general.

A poll conducted in October by the Gallup organization shows that just one in four Americans is "very confident" that votes will be accurately cast and counted this fall, and that poll workers will be able to resolve problems that arise on Election Day.

This relative skepticism has been fueled at least in part by well-publicized disruptions across the country during this year's primary season.

Congress held hearings this fall to discuss prophylactic measures to ensure that systems are not vulnerable to being hacked.

This against the backdrop of primaries held in Maryland, which were "plagued by error," in the words of Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich.

In a letter this September, Ehrlich excoriated Linda Lamone, the state administrator for the Maryland board of elections, for rushing "to implement electronic technology without sufficient training, management and oversight."

Among the problems reported across that state, many voters were sent away because poll workers did not know how to boot up machines, provided by Allen, Texas-based Diebold Election Systems.

Indeed, failures occurred in many cases because these systems are new to election officials and poll workers in jurisdictions which are trying to comply with requirements of the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

But Diebold, which did not respond to a request for comment, is far from the only vendor of electronic voting machines to experience these kinds of issues.

For instance, some voters raised concerns about the manner in which voting machine screens initially displayed their selections. In some cases, election officials decided that those screens would have to be recalibrated. Ken Fields, a spokesman for one of the vendors of such machines, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), based in Omaha, Neb., said that the new voting technology is working properly, adding that ES&S has provided poll workers with instructions on recalibrating the machines as necessary.*

"This is a process that certainly election officials can work through," he told internetnews.com.

Fields also confirmed that ES&S was unable to deliver software for devices sold to Dona Ana County, New Mexico, but said that election officials should be receiving it "shortly, if they haven't received it already."

That won't leave a lot of time for learning how to use the system.

Election officials also have to deal with unexpected technical issues, some of which will not be resolved in time for this year's election.

Dana Debeauvois, the clerk who oversees elections in Travis County, which includes the city of Austin, said that the eSlate machine manufactured by Hart Intercivic, of Austin, Texas, truncates names longer than 15 characters on the summary screen, although not on the ballot screens.

She told internetnews.com that she has not received software to fix that problem, but expects to have it by the next set of elections.

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that ES&S machines were especially prone to this kind of occurrence.