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Diebold CEO steps down as company and other vendors struggle to meet state certification deadline

Electronic voting machines were supposed to make casting a ballot both
simple and secure. Touch screens would make voting for the right candidate
simple, while computerized totals would make vote counts fast and accurate.
But with the state facing two important voting machine deadlines in the next
six months, the future of electronic voting in California appears as muddled
as ever.

One of the state’s leading touch-screen voting machine vendors is in the
middle of a shake-up as many counties have yet to certify electronic voting
machines. By the time California votes in the June 6 primary elections, the state will need to certify the voting machines used in each of California’s
58 counties. This includes a patchwork of machines from different
manufacturers–most of them not yet certified for use in the state–from at
least half a dozen different companies.

Diebold CEO Wally O’Dell resigned Monday for “personal reasons,” though
there have been published reports that indicate securities fraud and insider
trading charges are about to be filed against the company.
Last year, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed suit against
Diebold claiming it defrauded the state, providing false information about
the readiness of Diebold machines, and their compliance with state
certification standards.

Former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley also criticized Diebold, saying the
company deceived state officials with aggressive marketing that led to the
installation of touch-screen voting systems that were not tested or approved
nationally or in California.

In order to get certified, machines must be able to provide a voter verified
paper audit trail, or VVPAT. This is a paper record, kept in the precinct,
used as a safeguard against hackers. VVPATs are required under a 2004 bill,
SB 1438 sponsored by former Assemblyman Ross Johnson, R-Costa Mesa, and
Senate president pro tempore Don Perata, D-Oakland.

Machines must also have the ability to meet the requirements for public
auditing of election results, as required under SB 370. The bill, sponsored
by Democratic Sen. Debra Bowen, who is running for secretary of state, was
opposed by current secretary of state Bruce McPherson. But Gov.
Schwarzenegger signed the legislation this year.

While some Democrats have targeted Diebold, other critics say the state’s
certification process of these machines has been complicated by the lack of
federal standards and oversight on electronic voting machines, said Kim
Alexander, president of the watchdog group The California Voter Foundation.
“The federal government has completely fallen down on its responsibility to
provide secure voting systems for this country,” Alexander said. She added
that much of the costly and time-consuming effort California is going
through right now to certify machines would be unnecessary “if federal
testing were up to snuff.”

These wider-scale problems have also been glossed over by the public
fascination with a single voting machine vendor, Diebold, said Jim March, an
investigator with Black Box Voting, a watchdog group of the voting machine
industry.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the activists’ anger is directed at them and
there’s this idea that if they went away, voting in America would be okay,”
March said. “That’s not the case.”

Diebold makes a convenient scapegoat, Alexander agreed, largely due to the
controversy surrounding O’Dell. In 2003, outraged Democrats charged that
O’Dell was engaged in conflict of interest because he raised money for
President George W. Bush and wrote a letter stating he was “committed to
helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

O’Dell’s departure was a “mutual decision” between O’Dell and the board,
according to Diebold spokesman Mike Jacobsen. The company’s stock, which had
been suffering in recent months, surged on the news.

March said that the move showed that O’Dell had become a liability to
Diebold, which promoting chief operating office Thomas Swidarski from
outside the controversial election machines division.

The company has had some ongoing problems in California, said Alexander. The
company’s machines are use in 17 of California’s 58 counties, but only some
of these use the company’s latest machine, the TSX. Solano County spent
$400,000 to get out of a contract with Diebold, she said, while Alameda had
to replace older machines with TSXs. She gave the TSX a “50/50 chance” of
achieving certification by June 6.

According to David Bear, a Diebold spokesman who works for the election
machines division, in late November the technical committee of the
California Elections Commission recommended the TSX certification. Older
machines used in some counties might be retrofitted with the latest
safeguards and printing ability, he said, while others may need to be
replaced.

Nevertheless, Alexander and March both noted that part of the reason Diebold gets
so much flack is because they are essentially the only company in the
industry that the public knows anything about–not to mention being the only
publicly-traded company in the market.

She said Diebold’s main competitors are ES&S and Sequoia, both of which have
machines certified in California. Other players in this space include DFM,
Hart, Populex and Unilect.

Certification and security issues are important enough that the Secretary of
State’s office held a conference on the subject in Sacramento on Nov. 28,
the Voting Systems Testing Summit. Industry representatives and local
election officials largely said that the machines were secure.

“If you were a lottery player, that would be the equivalent of playing the
lottery every week for 100 weeks and winning every time,” said Brit Williams,
chair of Georgia’s NASED Voting System Board Technical Committee, of the
voting machines approved in his state.

However, without strong federal standards, said many others at the
conference, such assurances are not enough. For one thing, industry players
cannot treat voting machines like other types of technology by keeping trade
secrets and using proprietary software.

“Even if there are trade secrets, the public interest trumps them,” said
Michael Shamos, director of the Center for Privacy Policy at Carnegie Mellon
University. “If the vendor is so concerned about trade secrets in voting
system software, they should get out of the business.”

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