Monday, August 25, 2008


Absurdity of the Day:
No votes have been lost by Diebold equipment

I can't provide odds on whether dropped votes were not recognized, but based on what we know about how our customers run their elections and reconcile counts we believe any results not uploaded on election night would have been caught when elections were being certified. —Chris Riggall, spokesperson for Premier Election Systems, as quoted by Mary Pat Flaherty in "Ohio Voting Machines Contained Programming Error That Dropped Votes"

Last August "Diebold Election Systems" morphed into "Premier Election Systems" (PES) after so many problems had surfaced around Diebold voting equipment and its GEMS software that it became imperative to hide the good name of Diebold, which makes our ATM machines. Now comes the renamed company's acknowledgement that "A voting system used in 34 states contains a critical programming error that can cause votes to be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards to a central tallying point."

The problem has been present in the core software for 10 years (yes, that's ten). The company was forced into an admission only after intense investigations by election officials in Ohio.

When the problem of dropped votes was detected after the March 2008 primary, the company initially speculated that the "glitch" was caused by a problem with the McAfee anti-virus software and issued the astonishing advisory that the anti-virus software should be disabled when uploading the votes into the central database used for counting the votes. But there was a wee problem here too: The GEMS software had been certified to work in the presence of the McAfee software.

What's the problem?

The flaw in the software is fairly simple and anyone vaguely familiar with computer networking should be aware of it: resource sharing amidst conflicts of interest.

Most desktop computers do only one thing at a time, albeit very quickly. So when multiple requests come in, say, to print a document on an office printer shared by 5 workers, the network's server software has to be able to keep track of the requests and print each document without garbling them together on the one hand or forgetting about them on the other.

But when it came time to upload the local election tallies into the central database of the GEMS software, the server wasn't up to the task of managing the high volume of uploads. Imagine you're an old-fashioned telephone operator trying to keep track of incoming calls. As the switchboard lights up, it becomes more and more likely that you'll lose track of some of them. Which is why, as PES asserts, "The problem is most likely to affect larger jurisdictions that upload multiple memory cards during counts." As for the voting machines, since the error arose at the point of upload to the central database, it didn't matter whether the vote was registered by touchscreen or optical-scan equipment.

Because of the lag time between software modifications and the certifications of election software required by law, the software problem cannot be fixed before the November election. The company's new tack is to advise election officials that "the problem can be corrected as long as officials monitor whether the memory cards are being uploaded, and if they are not, reload them until they are." So there. Problem solved, right?

"Odds on whether dropped votes were not recognized"

The PES spokesman Riggall declined to provide odds whether over the course of the use of Diebold equipment any votes were lost. Then he made a really "smooth move"—

based on what we know about how our customers run their elections and reconcile counts we believe any results not uploaded on election night would have been caught when elections were being certified.

Naturally the company's customers—election supervisors in 34 states—won't be eager to step forward to explain that there were occasions when they couldn't reconcile the counts or that they didn't reconcile the counts. So the company's conjecture that "any results not uploaded on election night would have been caught" puts them on the spot, and it's a claim they're unlikely to challenge.

Also, many of these same election supervisors have over the years been unofficial cheerleaders for the GEMS software, repeatedly reassuring the public that the software was reliable and that their votes were being counted. They will undoubtedly take the view that the less said about it now, the better.

Nevertheless it requires a tremendous leap of faith to believe that a software problem that has been around for 10 years has suddenly decided to surface for the first time in 9 out of 44 counties in Ohio. I don't have that much religion in me.

The person responsible

What has changed isn't the software but the Ohio Secretary of State. Republican hack Kenneth Blackwell, who held the office during the 2004 election while acting as honorary co-chair of the "Committee to re-elect George W. Bush," was replaced by Democrat Jennifer Brunner in the 2006 election.

Brunner has given Premier (Diebold) fits ever since she took office in January 2007. The company filed a preemptive lawsuit against her in March 2008 "seeking a court declaration that Premier has fully complied with all obligations under various contracts and warranties regarding the purchase of the voting systems." Brunner responded by filing a counterclaim against the company. I suspect the company will eventually see the wisdom of making an out-of-court settlement.

This year Brunner was given the J.F.K. Profile in Courage Award for proposing that the state return to paper ballots "pending the development of improved technology." Some of the interested parties were not amused. Brunner also stirred up a hornet's nest last week by forbidding poll workers to take voting machines home for a "sleepover" the night before an election. Despite her directive it remains to be seen whether the machines can remain virgin.

Related posts
Voters' rights organizations questioned (12/21/04)
Belated Conclusion of the Day (12/08/06)
Judge won't let Sarasota Democratic challenger check voting machine code (12/30/06)
Good News of the Day (2/02/07)
Congress orders investigation of Sarasota voting machines (5/03/07)

Related news
A history and summary of Ohio's claim against PES:
Ohio Secretary of State Files Counterclaim in Lawsuit with Premier Election Solutions
A review of electronic voting problems from Scientific American:
Planning to E-Vote? Read This First


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