Firm finds root of vote glitches

Full-scale test of check-in system Tuesday

Maryland Votes 2006

September 27, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Diebold Election Systems Inc. said yesterday that a subcontractor has found the source of two additional design flaws that sporadically caused the state's electronic voter check-in computers to stop talking to each other and not program ballots during the Sept. 12 primary.

Although characterized as nuisances, these problems - combined with a more serious one that repeatedly caused the check-in computers, or e-poll books, to shut down - created frustration and confusion among poll workers, particularly in the state's larger counties where there was insufficient support staff to respond to every problem.

Yesterday, the five-member state Board of Elections sought from Diebold a detailed accounting of and solutions to the trio of failures and a commitment to pay for fixes on the state's 5,500 machines.

"I'm partially satisfied," said Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the elections board, who witnessed an e-poll crash when he voted. "We need to see results, but I'm pleased to see a commitment from Diebold."

Burger repeatedly reminded the three Diebold managers, including a company vice president, that Maryland had invested millions of dollars - the final total is expected to be $106 million - in the company's equipment and that the flaws "should never happen again."

Ross Underwood, director of the ExpressPoll Division at Diebold, said the company hopes to make all of the necessary changes by Oct. 12, enough time for local officials to retrain chief election judges statewide on the improved terminals, which look like small, flat-screen computer monitors.

According to Diebold's response to a list of 12 equipment issues identified by state elections officials, nine problems must be resolved, including two that only affected one county.

The political pressure on Diebold and state and local elections administrators is immense. A chaotic general election could give ammunition to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s push to scrap the state's voting system and replace it with paper ballots that are read by a scanner.

That push gained momentum yesterday when U.S. Senate Democrats proposed emergency legislation to reimburse states for printing paper ballots that can be ready at polling places in case of problems with electronic voting machines on Nov. 7. Ehrlich is one of a growing number of state and local officials expressing reservations about electronic voting machines - on which an estimated 40 percent of voters will cast ballots this year.

Republican leadership aides were skeptical about the prospects for the measure.

State election officials said that is difficult to prepare poll workers to handle equipment failures. If Diebold can't prove that the poll books are ready during a full-scale test Tuesday, Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone said she would scrap them.

E-poll books are separate from the machines on which ballots are cast, and failure does not result in an inaccurate vote count.

Underwood said the solutions to two of the most significant problems would be the installation of two new pieces of software on the machines, one from Diebold and the other from Advantech Co. Ltd., the subcontractor responsible for the poll books "losing sync."

The poll books contain a trove of information about each of Maryland's more than 3 million registered voters, and were designed to replace the cumbersome alphabetized binders filled with the same data. When a voter signs in at a precinct, the system marks him or her as having voted.

When the machines stop talking to each other, different poll books at a given precinct might not agree on how many people have been checked in to vote.

Underwood said Diebold was aware that Georgia, which uses an earlier model of the e-poll book, had similar problems during its primary in July, but had thought the problem was in the earlier model's hardware.

Since Maryland reported its problems, Advantech concluded that was not the case.

A solution to the third significant flaw likely will involve affixing a piece of polyester film to the machine's hardware, so that a computer card that is programmed with a ballot for each voter makes sufficient contact with the e-poll book so that it can be configured.

About 4 percent of the state's voter access cards "balked" when they were inserted in the machine, Diebold

The New York Times wire service contributed to this article.

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