Manufacturer of voting system assumes blame for Baltimore's Election Day glitch

Failure to test software resulted in breakdown, delays in vote counting

November 04, 1999|By Ivan Penn and Tim Craig | Ivan Penn and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The manufacturer of Baltimore's $6.5 million voting system took responsibility yesterday for the computer failures that delayed Tuesday election results and vowed to repay the city for overtime and related costs.

Phil Foster, regional manager for Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc., of Jamestown, N.Y., said his company neglected to update software in a computer that reads the elections results. While it tested some programs, the company did not test that part of the system before the election.

"We take responsibility and are sorry for the problem," Foster said during a news conference at the election board yesterday. "This was not an error created by anyone here in Baltimore."

The computer glitch forced election board staff to manually type in results, delaying vote tallies until early yesterday. The problem dampened election celebrations across the city and angered candidates, voters and city officials.

Not fair, Schmoke says

"I was not happy at all that the computer system failed," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday at City Hall. "It's just not fair to the citizens."

Before Sequoia agreed to reimburse the city for the problems -- a cost that election officials said could reach $10,000 -- Schmoke had threatened a lawsuit against the company.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III called for an investigation of the incident and was considering a council hearing on the issue.

Here's how Sequoia officials say the system failed:

Each of the city's 989 balloting machines has a cartridge that records votes. When polls close, police officers take those cartridges to the city Board of Supervisors of Elections.

The cartridges are plugged into an election board computer, which electronically reads them. The company was supposed to update the software in that computer after September's primary election.

Company officials tested the computer's ability to read ballot results that were input by hand, but no one tested the computer's ability to read the cartridges electronically.

Because the system was not tested, the company did not realize the computer software needed to be updated.

Although Sequoia accepted the blame, the incident dealt yet another blow to the city election board, which has suffered several mishaps in recent years.

In 1994, fraud allegations enveloped the gubernatorial election, and a recount was conducted.

Although the state prosecutor's office found no cause to file charges in that election vote count, it discovered the city election was beset with error, poor judgment, negligence, incompetence and procedural problems.

Last year, the city election board came under fire after spending $7,708 to hire Crown Security System Inc. of Baltimore to pick up computer cartridges and ensure delivery downtown.

The city predicted that all votes would be counted by 10 p.m. But the two final cartridges from a Northeast Baltimore school did not make it to the elections office until 12: 30 a.m.

Because of Tuesday night's computer problems, the election board's staff worked into the early morning, typing in results.

Four teams of workers read and then entered more than 49,000 numbers from the city's voting machines into the computer, forcing employees to work until 4: 30 yesterday morning.

"It is mentally and physically draining," said Marvin L. Cheatham, president of the election board.

Exhausted workers

Many election workers had been working since 5 a.m. Tuesday, and by early yesterday the long day had taken its toll.

"We thought we'd be out of here by 11: 30," said Rose C. Bertorelli, an elections board administrative specialist at 2 a.m. yesterday. "If I sound delirious, it's because I am."

The potential for mistakes had election officials reassuring the public that results would be unofficial until today's official count.

Foster said Sequoia and the election board would establish guidelines to ensure that such problems are not repeated.

Cheatham maintains that the Sequoia system is still among the best. "This was our fourth time using the best voting machine in the country," he said.

Sun staff writer Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

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