Top vote-machine maker also tops complaint list

Vendor discounts woes, blames poll workers.

Published May 27, 2007

In Waldenburg, Ark., population 80, one mayoral candidate garnered zero votes -- a number he knew was incorrect because he had cast a ballot for himself.

In Westmoreland County, Pa., some machines shut down prematurely and had to be restarted manually after every vote, forcing poll workers to switch to paper ballots in some precincts.

In each of those Election Day cases last November, county officials were relying on touch-screen machines made by Election Systems & Software -- the same ones used in the disputed congressional race in Sarasota County.

A law signed by Gov. Charlie Crist last week mandating new optical scan machines that would provide a paper trail means election officials in Florida will have to consider the company's track record when deciding which company to buy machines from. It's one of three major companies competing in the state.

ES&S, the nation's largest manufacturer of voting machines, has been under fire for a series of problems -- mostly poor customer service -- across the United States last year.

Indiana launched an inquiry into poor service, settling when the company agreed to pay $750,000. West Virginia filed a formal complaint against the company with federal officials. Arkansas put together a panel to investigate.

"ES&S let Arkansas down," Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels said last year. "They let our election officials down, and they let me down."

ES&S acknowledges that it struggled with customer service early last year -- mostly getting equipment and ballots to localities on time -- but said the problems were cleared up by November. The company denies any major trouble with its machines, attributing problems to errors made by poll workers.

A citizen group charged with recommending a new voting system to Sarasota officials unanimously voted to reject the company's bid after members say it failed to provide information on past machine problems.

"I had expected if they wanted additional business with us they would be frank," said member Jono Miller, who works at New College. "We're tired of waking up to problems."

A rapid overhaul

Congress' answer to the bitter 2000 presidential recount was a law helping states pay to replace outdated voting machines. The Help America Vote Act was a boon for companies eager to help customers trade in old-fashioned machines.

New voting equipment -- much of it electronic -- debuted in a third of the nation's precincts last year. Touch-screen machines have quadrupled since 2000, from 309 counties to 1,142, according to electionline.org.

No matter the manufacturer, voting experts around the nation say electronic machines have had their share of problems.

"All of them share some fundamental weaknesses," said Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University. "It's never going to be perfect."

VotersUnite, which attempts to compile problems across the nation, lists more than 100 complaints about electronic voting machines.

Co-director John Gideon says ES&S garners far more complaints than the other two large companies, and not just because it is the biggest. "They are the most widely prone to problems," he said.

ES&S, an Omaha-based company founded almost three decades ago, claims customers in 1,700 localities including Pasco County.

The other main companies are Diebold Election Systems, used in Hernando County, and Sequoia Voting Systems, used in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Voters and election officials report trouble with ES&S' touchscreen machines, optical scanners -- in which voters mark ballots by filling in ovals -- and other products, according to news reports and voter advocacy groups. They include jammed printers, ballot summaries not representing actual totals, frozen screens, paper not fitting scanners, missing or wrong ballots.

Voters in many places, including Florida, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, complained of vote-flipping -- pressing a button for one candidate but seeing the opponent's selected instead.

ES&S spokesman Ken Fields said meeting the requirements of the new federal law -- combined with different equipment, procedures and training before Election Day -- was more difficult than anticipated, causing delays in the first part of last year. But, he says, lists of mechanical issues reported by voter advocacy groups and the media are not necessarily accurate; the problems were caused by human error by county officials or a lack of training for voters and poll workers.

In Williamson County, Texas, for example, after voting machines counted each vote three times, election officials initially blamed ES&S's software. They later said it was probably human error, following a company audit showing mistakes by county workers. The county election administrator eventually resigned.

Company officials acknowledge programming errors in the machines in Westmoreland County but said they did not affect the outcome. In the Arkansas mayoral race, ES&S insists that every vote was captured accurately but that some voters simply changed their selection in the voting booth.

"Overall the equipment did work well," Fields said. "If there are issues, we work to address them immediately."

Still a player

Dick Clapp put his finger by his name on the touch-screen machine. Nothing happened.

A second time, still nothing.

It worked the third time, and Clapp voted for himself for Sarasota City Commission last year.

"I wasn't expecting that," said Clapp, who won his race. "I really wonder about the sensitivity of touch screens."

Other voters in Sarasota complained that the congressional race did not show up on their ballot or that the review screen did not indicate that they had failed to vote in that race.

More than 18,000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not record a vote in the race, a rate higher than in other counties in the 13th Congressional District.

Republican Vern Buchanan was sworn into the U.S. House in January but Democrat Christine Jennings refuses to concede, disputing her loss in the Florida courts and in Congress.

The state examined the machines and paid independent researchers to investigate before concluding that the computers were not faulty. Fields said that ES&S cooperated with the state and county to try to find out what happened and that the company has a commitment to helping voters and customers understand the equipment.

However, a Conduct of Election Report filed by Sarasota with the state indicated many minor problems with machines: eight did not open, 13 had slow responses, 11 froze during the day, 10 had faulty power supplies, four had inaccurate dates and one screen was upside down.

As the state phases out touch screens, the company is still likely to get millions of dollars in new business in Florida by marketing its new optical scanner, the DS-200. Company officials were demonstrating the device last week at a state conference of election supervisors in Sandestin.

Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent declined to say if she will recommend that the county continue to use ES&S, but she said she doesn't have a problem with the company.

"All of these are reputable vendors that at one time or another have had issues," she said. "There is no such thing as a perfect machine."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.

Election Systems & Software

Company profile

Based: Omaha, Neb.

Founded: 1979

Products: Hardware and software for all stages of elections including voter registration, ballot creation, voting and tabulation.

Employees: 350

Annual revenues: $117-million in 2005

Customers: Machines are used in more than 1, 700 localities in 46 states, Canada and elsewhere.

Reported problems in Florida

- In Sarasota County, more than 18, 000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not record a vote in the race, a rate higher than in other counties in the 13th Congressional District.

- Fourteen touch-screen machines at a Broward County precinct stopped working after machines were not calibrated for the correct time, officials said.

- Voting was delayed in Lee County when voting machine printers failed to print.

- Charlotte, Sumter and Lee counties reported excessive, inexplicable undervotes in the state attorney general's race.

- Voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said they tried to vote for one candidate but machines registered the opponent.

- Some touch-screen machines in Broward County stop working briefly and have to be restarted during heavy use.

Reported problems nationwide

- Voting machines failed to work for nearly two hours in a precinct in Centre County, Pa.

- Printers attached to voting machines designed to produce a paper trail did not work in many cases in Guilford County, N.C.

- Five of the 19 touch-screen machines in four precincts did not work for at least part of Election Day in Franklin County, Ohio.

- Officials in Lawrence County, Ark., switched to paper ballots after problems left machines inoperable.

- Printers failed to print, delaying a recount in Marshall County, W.Va.

- Memory cartridges counted all votes for just one candidate in Flathead County, Mont.

Sources: Times research, VotersUnite.org