California voting machine called into question

A state committee tables certification of Diebold's new touch-screen voting machine pending an investigation of uncertified software allegedly inserted into existing machines.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
As voters in California go to the polls, the state is launching an investigation into alleged illegal tampering with electronic voting machines in a San Francisco Bay Area county.

The voting machine fracas involves Diebold Election Systems, a North Canton, Ohio-based company whose machines are in use by four of California's 58 counties--Alameda, Plumas, Riverside and Shasta--and will be used by three more next year: Kern, San Joaquin and Solano.

The Voting Systems Panel, an advisory committee to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, was widely expected to certify Diebold's new model, the AccuVote-TSx, on Monday. The model currently in use by California counties and elsewhere is the AccuVote-TS, which at 50 pounds weighs about twice as much as the one under consideration and incurs additional transport and security costs as a result.

But at the meeting, a panel member raised allegations that Diebold had inserted software into Alameda's machines--software that the state had not certified. If true, that would violate California election law, according to the secretary of state.

"There were allegations that uncertified software may have been installed in California inappropriately, and we're looking into it," said Doug Snow, a spokesman for Shelley. "Our elections officials are examining this. In California, the law requires notification to the state when there are these software upgrades."

Diebold did not return calls seeking comment.

Controversy has crept up repeatedly on the company this year as the debate heightens over the security and reliability of touch-screen voting. The company boasts 33,000 machines in the United States.

In July, computer security experts from Johns Hopkins University and Rice University failed the company's machines on a security audit. The company has been pursuing legal action against two Swarthmore students, among other people, who have posted to the Web the company's internal e-mail correspondence, which also calls into question the quality of the company's product.

In addition, the company and its chief executive, Walden O'Dell, have come under fire for partisan donations and remarks. Diebold donated at least $195,000 to the Republican Party between 2000 and 2002, and O'Dell once pledged to "deliver" Ohio's electoral votes for President Bush.

Meanwhile, California counties are under the gun to modernize their voting equipment. Nine counties still use the type of punch card machines that proved notoriously inexact in the 2000 presidential election. The state will decertify those machines in March.

The panel voted to table certification of the new machines indefinitely, pending the investigation into the software upgrade in Alameda.

One person familiar with the panel's action pointed out that the software upgrade in question had already earned its federal certification, and called the issue more procedural than substantive.

But elections watchdogs called that a distinction without a difference.

"Even if the software in question did go through federal testing, that doesn't change the fact that Diebold violated the state's certification laws," said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation. "It's the law in California that any system used in an election has to be certified. And when it comes to certification, the procedures are substantive."

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters did not return calls seeking comment.

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.