Lapses found in Baltimore in voting machine security

January 09, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SEQUOIA PACIFIC VOTING EQUIPMENT INC., BALTIMORE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, CITY POLICE DEPARTMENTSun Staff Writer

Security keys for some Baltimore voting machines were not returned to election officials as required when the polls closed Nov. 8, leaving about a dozen of the city's nearly 1,200 machines vulnerable to tampering, an investigation by The Sun has found.

The keys -- used to lock machines shut and prevent any manipulation of the vote tally -- were improperly left on top of machines or in their locks when the equipment was returned to a city warehouse, according to some election officials and other workers familiar with the warehouse operation.

Under strict procedures set up to protect the machine vote, election judges in city polling places are supposed to lock the machines, then seal all keys in envelopes and return them to election board headquarters on election night.

In interviews with The Sun, none of the individuals who saw keys on or in voting machines after the polls closed alleged that the keys were used to cast fraudulent votes. If there were any tampering as a result of the mishandled keys, it would be detected easily unless masked by a fairly elaborate scheme in which voter authority cards also were signed for each fraudulent vote cast and the names checked off lists in city precinct binders.

At best, the misplaced keys are an indication of sloppy election management, experts say. At worst, the handling of the keys leaves the city's election count open to question and bolsters suspicions of fraud -- particularly among Republicans challenging the results of the governor's race.

"In the minds of voters . . . it compromises the integrity of the election," said Penelope Bonfall, director of the nonpartisan National Clearinghouse on Election Administration, an arm of the Federal Election Commission.

"It appears that there was mismanagement and unclear communications about the importance of the keys," said Ms. Bonfall, who has worked in election administration for more than 20 years. "Those keys are one of the ways that your machines become vulnerable."

Attorneys for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who lost the governor's race to Democrat Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes, are likely to use the issue of the misplaced keys in the trial of their lawsuit, which begins today.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 27, cites the "improper possession and disposition of [city voting machine] keys" as one reason for overturning the November election.

"The statutory protections for the machines require a separation of the keys from the machines to ensure that no tampering occurs," said John M. Carbone, a New Jersey lawyer and election specialist who is heading Mrs. Sauerbrey's legal team. "Given the opportunity for tampering and the motivations of some people, one can never be sure what occurred."

Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III, who is representing city and state election officials in the suit, conceded that there was "room for improvement" in the city's handling of the keys.

"The bottom line here is that there is no evidence that the integrity of the process or the election . . . was compromised," he said.

The mishandled keys were revealed in interviews by The Sun with workers at Guardian Moving & Storage Co., a South Baltimore hauler that has the contract for dropping off and picking up Baltimore's voting machines.

In separate interviews, two of the company's 24 workers on the election detail said they found a set of keys atop voting machines at different city polling places. A colleague who asked not to be identified said he saw "at least 10 machines" with keys in them.

Tracy E. Campbell, a Guardian driver for nearly four years, said he found one set of keys atop one voting machine, but could no longer recall the location. Michael C. Forney, a Guardian warehouseman who worked on a truck for the election moves, said he "found two keys on one of the machines" -- a different machine than the one handled by Mr. Campbell's crew.

"The set that I found wasn't in an envelope," he said. "I just dropped them down the side of the machine. They're probably still there."

The third worker, who also has transported machines in several previous elections, said this time he saw "at least 10 machines" that were returned to the warehouse with the keys still in them. "This year is the first time I saw any keys in the machines," he said.

Two city election board workers at the North Franklintown Road warehouse where the machines are stored also confirmed seeing some with keys in them. One asked not to be identified. The other, James J. Cawley, who worked at the warehouse until quitting in December, acknowledged seeing "two or three" machines returned with keys in them.

Stressing the internal safeguards of the machines -- widely acknowledged as difficult to breach -- Mr. Cawley said he believed that the keys were mistakenly jammed in the locks by election judges and could not be removed.

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