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California hearing on Premier voting systems

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

California hearing on Premier voting systems

In Sacramento this morning, 17 March, the California Secretary of State’s Office held a public hearing on SoS Bowen’s report about a software problem that resulted in 197 votes being erased from an election tally in Humboldt County with no record of such deletion showing in the audit log. Today’s public meeting was made available via a listen-only phone link.

Background material, including a brief Staff Report to the SoS, and the Secretary of State’s earlier report to the Election Assistance Commission, is available
here. A transcript of today’s hearing will later be available from the same website.

The first speaker was Lowell Finley. Deputy Secretary of State of California,Voting Systems Technology and Policy, who outlined how the missing votes were brought to the Secretary of State’s attention as a result of an independent audit of voting in the November 2008 election.

The Humboldt County Election Transparency Project had convinced that county’s Registrar of Voters to invest $25,000 in off-the-shelf optical scanning equipment, provided open source software to tally the results of their independent scan of ballots, and then proceeded to re-scan every ballot as well as handcount them if there was a discrepancy between the official and independently counted totals.

In summary, Finley pointed to four main concerns, which were included in the SoS’s report to the Election Assistance Commission: a software error leading to deletion of ballots; failure of audit logs; the presence of the clear button on audit logs; and inaccurate timestamps on audit log entries. (The “clear” button is the equivalent of using “delete” on a Windows system with the important difference that there is no backup of what was deleted.)

Finley pointed out that had any of these problems been discovered by the federal laboratory that certified the software, it would have required denial of federal approval of that version of the software. He said the federal lab didn’t report any such flaws, nor were the software error and audit log problems detected by the California Secretary of State’s testing processes.

One of the concerns Finley had was that back in October 2004, Premier—then known as Diebold—was aware of the problem, and failed to notify both the federal and state entities involved in certifying software and voting equipment, instead sending an “informal” email directly to the county elections officials with equipment running on that version, giving a workaround.

Finley said that at no time did Diebold update its operating manuals to include the workaround, and with a change of Registrar of Voters in Humboldt County between 2004 and 2008, the undocumented problem was not dealt with. In his presentation this morning, Premier’s General Manager, Western Area, Justin Bale, said that the lack of proper handoff between the Humboldt County registrars, and a lack of vendor reporting protocols required by states back in 2004 were key to the loss of the votes in November 2008.

Bale also said it was inaccurate to say that the email was the only contact. The software problem was discussed many times directly with county elections officials, he said. There are only three counties in California still using this old version of the software, and his company has repeatedly encouraged them to update. Premier also now distributes official Product Advisory Notices.

On the question of the work put in by the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project, Bale said he welcomed the fact that their independent audit had shown how accurate the electronic tally had been in all the other precincts where the chain of events had not taken place which led to the wiping of those 197 votes in one precinct.

Questioned by one of the panelists about whether Premier has addressed a different problem—that of audit logs being wiped with no trace, or showing inaccurate timestamps—Bale replied, “No, not yet.” He said there was no malicious intent, but it was simply not addressed in the initial programming. “We’re now looking at it as a priority,” he said.

The public comment portion of this morning’s meeting allowed two minutes per speaker—down from the three minutes advertised in the agenda because of the number of people who wanted to have their say. Most of the speakers were from election protection advocacy groups and favored the use of open source software but differed on whether handcounting votes was a good thing.

Judy Alter of the Project to Protect CA Ballots, who lives in Los Angeles, and Gail Worth of the San Mateo County Democratic Party both spoke on the lack of access given to election observers, despite there being laws saying they should have that access, and called on Secretary of State Bowen to be more proactive in promoting the rights of credentialed observers.

Kevin Collins of the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project and Judy Bertelson of the Voting Rights Taskforce emphasized that the solution put in place in Humboldt County—of using an independent scan and audit of the vote—is both cost-effective and efficient, and could be emulated throughout the country at the precinct and/or county level.

Kim Alexander of the CA Voter Foundation felt that discussions to date seem to suggest that the problem with the audit log is limited to only this one system. “But it’s not. Up to this point, everyone working on election integrity assumed the audit logs were reliable. The Secretary of State should make audit logs a priority.”

Alexander noted that election integrity activists were in Sacramento in 2004 protesting the use of uncertified software, and now “we’re here because of certified software” despite the state’s best efforts to adopt more stringent certification.

Tom Pinto of the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project said that “What I’ve learned is that we need to conduct a 100 percent audit throughout California.” He pointed out that the first time they monitored an election, in June 2008, “we discovered boxes of absentee ballots that hadn’t been counted. That was before certification [of the election results]. Doing citizen audits we can correct problems before certification. ... When you’re doing something important, you need to go back and count it twice.”

Again, a full transcript of today’s hearing will be available here.



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