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Politics

Exactly who is running the new voting machines?

Florida's counties are not required to ask.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published October 31, 2006


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Florida knows more about the clerk who sells lottery tickets at the corner store than it does about the technician who troubleshoots voting machines at the corner precinct.

That's because lottery ticket retailers must undergo criminal background checks, but there are no such state requirements for the employees of the companies that manufacture and maintain voting equipment for Florida's 67 counties.

A Florida felon can't vote, but he or she can own, sell, program and fix the machines that nonfelons use to vote - unless counties prohibit that in their individual contracts.

That, and the worrisome possibility of vote tampering, has voting watchdog groups asking who, exactly, is behind the companies that make Florida elections equipment.

"We've been concerned about this for a long time," said Pamela Haengel, head of the Voting Integrity Alliance of Tampa Bay.

Haengel's interest mirrors that of the federal government, which is looking into reports of a possible connection between a Boca Raton company, Smartmatic, and Hugo Chavez, the fiery Venezuelan leader who recently called President Bush "the devil." Smartmatic, whose chief principals are Venezuelan entrepreneurs, last year purchased Sequoia Voting Systems, which makes the equipment used in Pinellas and Hillsborough elections.

Sequoia officials have vehemently denied any connection with the Venezuelan government. They say they are voluntarily providing information to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which oversees foreign companies operating in the United States, in order to put the rumors to rest.

The possible link between Smartmatic and Chavez was reported over the weekend in the Miami Herald and the New York Times.

Pinellas and Hillsborough County elections officials say there's no reason to be concerned about the ownership of their election equipment vendors.

But watchdog groups like Haengel's say there should be more information about the companies that make and maintain Florida's equipment, and about the proprietary software that is used, particularly in the 15 counties that use electronic voting machines.

Their concern isn't limited to Sequoia. Of the three companies certified to do business in Florida only one is publicly traded - Diebold Elections Systems, based in North Canton, Ohio. The other two - Sequoia of Oakland, Calif., and Elections Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. - are privately held, so less information on them is available.

Diebold has contracts with 30 Florida counties; Sequoia has contracts with five counties; and ES&S - which had employed former Florida Secretary of State Sandy Mortham as one of its lobbyists - has contracts with 32 for regular precinct coverage, according to state records. Some companies have additional contracts to handle absentee ballots or disabled accessible machines.

But beyond the most basic information, the state doesn't require companies seeking certification to submit any data about their corporate structure, ownership or employee background. That's up to the counties that contract for the equipment and run the elections, said state Division of Elections spokesman Sterling Ivey.

State Sen. Nan Rich, the vice chairwoman of the Ethics and Elections Committee, said she would be more concerned about the background of the companies that sell voting machines if the individual counties didn't do a good job of vetting them through the contracts.

Even so, she said requiring background checks on private employees might be a good idea, given the level of access the vendors have to the machines on Election Day.

"Maybe that's something we want to take a look at," said Rich, D-Sunrise.

Louisiana requires some background checks, which it began doing after its elections chief pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from an independent Sequoia equipment distributor. Separate charges were filed and later dropped against a Sequoia executive.

The case led Pinellas County officials to delay signing their $14-million contract with Sequoia while they looked at the backgrounds of "key employees." But county officials ultimately didn't require continuing background checks for technicians in its contract with Sequoia.

And Sequoia workers are now spending plenty of time at the county elections office. According to office spokesperson Nancy Whitlock, however, Sequoia's training personnel are stretched thin across the country and are unable to train Pinellas' new elections technology chief on their products until December.

As a result, it's Sequoia workers who are providing the most sophisticated technical support in the elections office.

"Right now we don't really have a choice because of the training issue," Whitlock said.

In Hillsborough County, Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said he relies on a veteran county information technology staff and uses Sequoia representatives only in emergencies.

"In all candor, we need them if we have questions," he said. "There is not a great training manual for the system."

Times staff writers Will Van Sant and Kevin Graham and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 31, 2006, 05:35:24]


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