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Elections & Voting Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

ES&S; -- the Midas Touch in reverse
By Ellen Theisen
Online Journal Guest Writer

Nov 17, 2006, 00:59

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"The problem with touch screens as vote counters is that they can be easily manipulated." --Mike Devereaux, ES&S Sales Representative

Toward the end of the twentieth century, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), which now supplies election equipment to 39 states, was born into a world enamored of technology -- a perfect opportunity in the wide-open business of making and selling computerized election equipment. Voting integrity activists were few and far between, and election officials had no reason to resist the digitizing of election results. The field was a gold mine to be harvested.

But from the beginning, whatever opportunity ES&S touched turned into a disaster. When their M100 ballot scanners debuted in Hawaii in 1998, the machines failed so badly, ES&S had to pay over half a million dollars to settle contract disputes and recount the ballots. Simultaneously in Dallas, software bugs in their ES&S election equipment lost 41,015 ballots -- one out of every eight.

Two years later, flaws in the ES&S tabulating equipment caused Venezuela to postpone "the biggest election in Venezuelan history."

Undaunted, ES&S continued selling its wares and leaving a trail of election problems in its wake -- flipping votes on the screens in Arkansas; counting more votes than voters in San Francisco; giving votes to the wrong candidates in Florida, Kansas, Texas; and irretrievably losing entire ballots. In September 2002, Miami's new paperless touch screen machines, the ES&S iVotronics, lost 8.2 percent of the ballots in the 31 precincts that the ACLU examined -- losing as many as 21 percent in some precincts.

Two months later, in the mid-term elections in Raleigh, North Carolina, the election director stopped using the iVotronics for early voting when they failed to record 436 ballots cast on the machines -- in a single day.

So two years later, ES&S took their iVotronic software to Indiana and had it certified, but instead of installing it there, they illegally installed an uncertified version because, according to ES&S, the certified version "might not tabulate votes." A frustrated Election Commissioner Anthony Long put his finger on the heart of the problem when he asked ES&S, "Do you understand that to run an election for something to work, it's gotta count the votes?" Shortly thereafter, Indiana passed legislation providing stiff penalties for election equipment vendors who act on their own without permission of the state election commission.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Those two years brought a whirlwind of election debacles caused by ES&S equipment. In the 2002 mid-term election, ES&S ballot scanners handed the Alabama gubernatorial election to the wrong candidate in a mistake eventually caught by election officials. Their paperless touch screens continued flipping votes in Florida, locking up and shutting down in Louisiana, and providing questionable results wherever they were in use.

Their ballot scanners reversed totals in the mid-term elections in Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Dakota. And in 2003, the ES&S products continued to run amok, reversing totals in Illinois and losing ballots in North Carolina.

Off to an early start in their trail of 2004 fiascos, the iVotronics reported 134 blank ballots in a south Florida election with a 12-vote margin of victory. There was only one contest on the ballot, so if the tally is to be believed, 134 voters trekked to the polls, signed in, and decided not to vote. At that time, Florida required manual recounts for close elections such as this one, but since there weren't any ballots to recount, the machines' tally stood.

Continuing along the 2004 trail, ES&S equipment lost 189 ballots in Sarasota County, Florida; balked at accumulating votes in San Antonio; failed to count them in Lubbock; and counted candidates' votes for their opponents in several Arkansas counties.

Mid-year, a Miami election official reported that the audit log for the iVotronics, which was the only method of checking the operation of the machines, had a software bug that made the log unusable for its sole purpose -- auditing.

The same story continued through the rest of the year. In addition to miscounting ballots in Arkansas, Florida, Wyoming, Michigan, and Arizona; ES&S equipment flipped votes on the screens in Texas, Ohio, and yes, Florida.

But there were also some new twists in the ES&S twister that swept the country. In LaPorte Indiana, the iVotronics recorded 300 votes in every precinct, eliminating over 50,000 ballots. In South Carolina, officials were unable to retrieve 200 votes off the memory cartridges. In Wisconsin, ES&S ballot scanners failed to count straight-party votes at all. In Nebraska, Ohio, and Washington, they added votes to the totals. And in Indiana, the iVotronics recorded more votes than voters (called "phantom votes) in some precincts, fewer ballots than voters in others.

One of the most interesting twists, however, is the "counting backwards" phenomenon that cropped up in Florida and North Carolina. For some inexplicable reason, ES&S set up its software to handle vote totals ranging from 32,000 to -32,000 -- yes, negative 32,000, as if there might at some point be negative totals. And there were. As the totals in three southern counties exceeded 32,000, the software flipped into negative mode and began counting backwards.

Two thousand five saw more of the same . . . and more. Lost votes and switched votes in Florida and Mississippi, straight-party votes uncounted in Wisconsin and Michigan, phantom votes in South Carolina and Florida. And even a new thing -- the county commissioner's race simply didn't appear on some �not all, but some -- of the electronic ballots in a Broward County, Florida, election.

Onward to 2006, as ES&S equipment continues counting votes backwards, leaving others uncounted, and adding votes cast by phantoms. The company continues installing outdated software -- in West Virginia this time. The ballot programming they provide for the 2006 primary fails to count the votes properly in dozens of jurisdictions across many states.

And new problems continue to arise. Flawed programming gives voters the wrong electronic ballots, the company misprints paper ballots and supplies faulty memory cartridges to its customers, and customers discover that the tally software refuses to combine vote totals from iVotronics and ballot-scanners.

As things heat up with the frantic rush to comply with federal law before the November 2006 elections, ES&S expands its dysfunctionality. The company violates contracts -- refusing to provide ballot programming services in Arkansas and California on the one hand, and inspiring the Oregon Secretary of State to file a lawsuit on the other. ES&S fails to deliver equipment and services as agreed -- inspiring legal complaints in both Indiana and West Virginia.

Meanwhile, ES&S manages to turn a goldmine into a disaster as it delivers faulty AutoMARKS -- a ballot-marking device marketed by ES&S and endorsed by voting integrity activists -- to customers such as Wyoming and New Mexico while it fails to deliver them on time in other states.

With news reports of ES&S failures in at least 15 states in the November 2006 election, it's difficult to keep up now with all the elections ES&S has turned into chaos, so let's skip right to the latest fiascos.

Three races hang in the balance in Benton County, Arkansas. A week after the election, outcomes have shifted three times, but reports of more than 100 percent turnout in some precincts make officials leery of the results, and even ES&S has trouble figuring out the true totals. Will even the winners believe the final results?

And there's more! In Waldenburg, Arkansas, a mayoral candidate who voted for himself on an iVotronic finds that the machines reported no votes at all in his column. Meanwhile, officials in Sarasota County, Florida, speculate about why 18,000 votes for the U.S. House District 13 race don't show up on the tally -- in a contest with a 368-vote margin. One vote out of 36 lost in Waldenburg; 18,000 out of 140,000 missing in Sarasota. Different in degree, but not much different in kind.

ES&S breaks contracts, installs illegal software, fails to deliver equipment on time, delivers faulty equipment, and misprograms ballots. Their equipment heats up, breaks down, operates badly, and fails to operate at all. Every product the company makes malfunctions in its own special way -- miscounting votes, adding votes, subtracting votes, doubling votes, losing votes, mis-scanning ballots, and/or flipping votes from one candidate to another.

ES&S products fail again and again at the one thing they are supposed to do -- count votes correctly. With hurricane ES&S gathering speed in every election, we can only wonder . . . why are their systems still in use, and what will be next?

An extensive compendium of problems with ES&S election equipment, with links to media articles, can be found here and here

This article originally appeared on VotersUnite!

Ellen Theisen was the founder and original Executive Director of VotersUnite! In her 22-year career as a software technical writer, she has written hundreds of user manuals, functional and design specifications, online help systems, and programmer guides. Early in 2004, Ellen wrote "Myth Breakers for Election Officials" to dispel myths about HAVA and inform decision-makers of important, under-publicized facts about electronic voting issues.

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