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Voting panel grills Diebold

The elections systems vendor comes under fierce questioning the day after a staff report for the California secretary of state charged it with breaking state elections law.

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--State elections officials here held Diebold's corporate feet to the fire Wednesday morning in a contentious first day of hearings on the company's conduct and e-voting technology.

California's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel grilled Diebold Election Systems President Bob Urosevich and an attorney for the company after releasing a blistering report that alleged the company violated state law by installing uncertified software on voting machines in four California counties.

At stake in the hearing is Diebold's right to do business in the nation's most populous state. The panel could decide Wednesday or Thursday to recommend a variety of remedies, from decertifying some of Diebold's voting equipment to barring electronic voting methods altogether.

"Diebold marketed, sold and installed its TSx (voting machine) in these four California counties prior to full testing, prior to federal qualification, and without complying with the state certification program," read a staff report on the investigation of Diebold Election Systems released Tuesday. An audit of all 17 California counties using the company's equipment, the report went on to say, "discovered that Diebold had, in fact, installed uncertified software in all its client counties without notifying the Secretary of State as required by law, and that the software was not federally qualified in three client counties."

Diebold and its handful of competitors are under intense scrutiny as states across the nation struggle to upgrade their voting systems in time for the November presidential election. After the 2000 election, which was decided by mere hundreds of votes and in which paper ballots proved impossible to decipher in many cases, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, to spur states into modernizing their equipment.

Simultaneously, Diebold--which on Tuesday said its net income for the first quarter rose to 40 cents a share, up from 36 cents a share a year ago--finds its elections division under fire after a series of voting glitches, public-relations messes and legal problems.

Over the past year, the company's reputation has sustained a series of blows: Its chief executive took fire for promising in an August 2003 Republican fund-raising letter to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to President Bush. E-vote critics discovered the company's elections equipment source code sitting unprotected on a public FTP server.

That code subsequently underwent analysis by security experts who called its security measures inadequate at best. And the company undertook and later abandoned under public, legal and even congressional pressure a copyright offensive against people who posted damaging internal Diebold e-mail correspondence online.

In response to the staff report, panel members Wednesday morning took turns criticizing the company.

Diebold's equipment "clearly wasn't ready for prime time," said panel member Marc Carrel, assistant secretary of state for policy and planning. Noting that Diebold had requested 10 software upgrade certifications in the eight weeks leading up to the March 2 Super Tuesday primary election, Carroll said, "I'm just dumbfounded that you would have sold and sought certification" for the machines.

Urosevich began his remarks by apologizing to the panel for any embarrassment Diebold's actions may have caused.

But he quickly followed that apology with a spirited defense.

"There was no improper attempt or motive on our part," said Urosevich, calling himself "dismayed" at the report's findings. "The allegations are not true and are factually not supported."

Bones of contention between the panel and Diebold include the timing of software upgrades and certification requests and the reporting of federal testing procedures and results.

Several panel members made reference to a report in Monday's Oakland Tribune that detailed legal memos showing that Diebold attorneys knew in November that the company was falling afoul of California elections law.

Botched batteries
The panel also zeroed in on the company's knowledge of a battery problem that caused many voting stations in San Diego county to open as much as two hours late, sending an unknown number of people away without having cast their vote.

Urosevich said he didn't know of the battery problem before the San Diego election. In response, panel chair and Undersecretary of State Mark Kyle responded that Diebold had advised Solano County about the problem before the San Diego battery fiasco.

"What did you know and when did you know it with respect to this battery-charge problem that disenfranchised voters?" panel member Tony Miller, HAVA project manager for the secretary of state's office, asked Urosevich.

Urosevich appeared to walk a fine line between humbling himself before the panel and defending his company's actions.

"We are not idiots, thought we may act at some times as not the smartest," Urosevich told the panel in response to critical questions about the company's optical scan technology. "I like your testers better than mine," he said, acknowledging that Diebold testers improperly flagged a problem for party crossover voting in primary elections.

Panel members were greeted this morning by dozens of protesters rallying outside the Secretary of State office. Members of a Sacramento group called True Majority wore T-shirts and waved signs that read, "The computer ate my vote."

The panel meets through Thursday and will address a second report released Tuesday, this one on the March 2 vote. That report expressed doubt that California would be able to salvage its e-voting plans before voters go to the polls to elect the next president.

"Many of the difficulties encountered with touch screens at the March primary can be addressed," the report concluded. "The technology exists to build reliable, secure systems with accessible, voter-verified, paper trails. It is unclear, however, whether the issues identified in this report can or will be addressed adequately in time for the November election."

The panel is expected, but not required, to make its recommendations to the secretary of state Wednesday or Thursday. The secretary of state then has up to six months before an election to decertify systems slated to be used for it.