Will the state�s election software be reliable?

There�s no doubt presidential election season is in full swing: Candidates are plowing through the primaries, supporters are forking over cash and voters are eager to cast their ballots. Most importantly: Election problems are a thing of the past.

Or maybe not.***image1***

On Jan. 16, the New Hampshire Secretary of State�s Office authorized a recount of its Jan. 8 primary election results after two candidates cited discrepancies between hand-counted and machine-tallied votes. But even before that, in December, the Ohio Secretary of State�s Office had released a report assessing the three electronic voting systems used in the Buckeye State.

While authors of the $1.9 million report focus on technical issues, their conclusions are crystal clear: �All of the studied systems possess critical security failures that render their technical controls insufficient to guarantee a trustworthy election.�

Think this is just a problem in Ohio? Guess again: One of the companies studied, Omaha-based ES&S, supplies and operates New Mexico�s M100 and AutoMark voting machines.

Democratic party activist Gideon Elliot calls the problem with the state�s voting machines, �an IT nightmare,� pointing out that the Unity software, which ES&S supplies the state, operates on Windows XP:  �If your Windows operating system has ever crashed, then you have experience with Unity.� He adds, �And the Secretary of State�s Office can�t stick their heads in the sand over this.�

But Secretary of State Mary Herrera, a Democrat, is not concerned with the state�s voting machines, their security or the actions of ES&S, according to an e-mail from SOS spokesman James Flores. Flores said Herrera was unavailable for an interview due to the legislative session.

Meanwhile, others are taking action against ES&S: In November, California�s Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen sued ES&S, seeking $15 million after learning the company had sold more than 900 untested and uncertified AutoMark A200 voting machines to five counties. The City of San Francisco followed suit, alleging the company had breached its contract and committed fraud.

In Colorado, Republican Secretary of State Mark Coffman ordered a study of the state�s machines after a federal judge ruled with activists who called the state�s testing process �inadequate.� And in December, Coffman ended up decertifying the state�s ES&S M100 and M650 optical scan devices (and iVotronic electronic voting machine) after they failed security tests.

Denise Lamb, Santa Fe County Bureau of Elections chief director, has mixed feelings about such studies.

�They are never done under Election Day [conditions] or any conditions that are in the real world,� she says. �What happens is the machines are taken into a laboratory and people with computer science degrees are left alone to play with them.� She says she would be �astounded� if the machines were not manipulated under such circumstances: �In the real world of election administration, we don�t allow people to play with the machines unattended.�

That said, Lamb believes ES&S�s monopoly over New Mexico�s election machines is a problem. Unlike previous vendors, she notes, ES&S will not train state or county workers to perform maintenance operations. Instead, it charges the state more than $1 million each year in maintenance fees.

Problems of cost and maintenance have already hit home with Lincoln County Clerk Tammie Maddox.

While certifying the machines for last November�s special election, county workers found that the M100s did not recognize their memory cards.

Maddox says when she requested replacement cards, ES&S sent back the same ones she had returned. As the election was approaching quickly, she called the company again: �It took calling them and basically getting in their face about it before they said they would replace them,� she says.

The company�s lackluster response was particularly irksome in light of the $14,000 yearly maintenance cost the county pays ES&S. �It�s very frustrating that we have this equipment we didn�t want to begin with,� she says. �Before, we didn�t pay anything, and we had machine technicians who could repair it.�

Now, Maddox has asked the state for help�and not just with maintenance fees.

ES&S would be more responsive to the Secretary of State�s Office, she says, than to individual counties: �A big business like that�we�re just a little tiny county,� she says. �They are not going to pay much attention to a county of 22,000 people.�