Diebold machine glitch fixed quietly

'05 repair not disclosed to elections board

Maryland Votes 2006

12 Days Until Nov. 7

October 26, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Diebold Election Systems shipped Maryland flawed electronic voting machines that were used in the 2004 election, then quietly replaced the malfunctioning components last year, documents and interviews show.

Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the State Board of Elections, said this week that he and fellow members were initially told that Diebold was performing a "technical refresher" of the voting machines during July and August last year. He later learned that the refresher was really the repair of a flaw discovered by Diebold about three years earlier but not disclosed to him and other board members. The "motherboard" of each unit - the main circuit board that holds all of the machine's critical parts - had a glitch that could cause the machines to freeze.

Diebold officials insist that no votes were lost because of the problem, and say they did not alert Maryland earlier because they believed that it had been fixed. Still, the disclosure raises fresh questions about whether the company has adhered to its Maryland contracts, which are worth more than $100 million.

"This demonstrates the level of contractor oversight that Diebold requires," Burger said. "On Monday, I'm going to ask our attorneys to report back to me if there was any violation of the contract and what financial remedies are available to me."

Hanging in the balance is an approximately $18 million payment for the state's new voter check-in system, called e-poll books, which suddenly rebooted after every 43rd voter checked in during the state's chaotic Sept. 12 primary.

National elections experts have identified Maryland as one of several states at risk for voting problems on Nov. 7, mainly because last month's primary was marred by human and technical failures.

Thousands of voters had to resort to paper back-up ballots after poll workers failed to show up in Baltimore and critical voter cards needed to operate the voting machines were forgotten in Montgomery County. E-poll books, an electronic check-in system made by Diebold that is distinct from the touch-screen voting units, crashed repeatedly.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and others have suggested that voters use paper absentee ballots next month if they are concerned about voting system integrity.

Faced with intense public pressure after the primary, Diebold acknowledged failures with its check-in equipment - something the company has been reluctant to do in the past - and tested the e-poll books in open forums.

Diebold's contract with Maryland calls for "prompt" replacement of equipment that does not function properly. Another document - the "request for proposals," which laid out contractor requirements in 2001 - calls on the company to inform the state of "any hardware or software system error occurring in any jurisdiction outside of Maryland in which the voting system is being used."

Only after the motherboard flaw appeared during the state's 2004 elections - when voting units sporadically froze - did the Texas-based company offer an explanation to Maryland elections chief Linda H. Lamone.

Asked why staff at the State Board of Elections has continued to buy products from Diebold since then, deputy elections administrator Ross Goldstein noted that very few machines failed in 2004 and that the election, on the whole, was a success.

"There was enough satisfaction with the equipment and the technology that we were willing to go forward," Goldstein said. "Votes weren't lost. They were accurately counted, and implementation was successful."

Still, the machines had many critics, including a group of activists, TrueVoteMd, who have sued the state to alter the system to make it more secure. Documents obtained by the group's attorneys as part of the lawsuit reveal further details about who knew about the problem - and when they found out.

According to an internal Diebold e-mail, the company stopped production of the voting machines on March 11, 2002, after reports that the units - the same kind that were delivered to Maryland that year for use in four counties - were malfunctioning.

"Our preliminary assessment is that this may be caused by motherboard-related issues, such as machine freezing up, start-up error that yields machine lockup, and machine self-rebooting," wrote Cindy Hartzell, a Diebold employee.

In response, another employee wrote: "What about the units that have already been shipped to customers?" referring specifically to counties in Tennessee and Kansas.

Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Diebold in Maryland, said the company stopped production to fix the problem, then tested every motherboard when assembly was restarted. Maryland, however, was not notified at the time.

Three years later, responding to questions from Lamone, Diebold President Tom Swidarski wrote in April 2005 that the company's Maryland project manager "was not aware of the production issue" because any unit that had passed the test was deemed safe.

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