Florida county e-voting system deal nixed

ES&S has decided not to work with elections officials in Leon County

Elections officials in Leon County, Fla., are scrambling to find a way to comply with state and federal voting laws now that the vendor from which they had planned to buy handicapped-accessible optical scan election equipment is walking away from the deal.

The Leon County Commission last month voted to scrap its investment in 160 AccuVote optical-scan voting machines from Diebold Election Systems and had planned to swap in new devices from Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S) (see "Diebold Machines Voted Out by Florida County"). Leon County intended to use ES&S's AutoMark optical scan gear to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and Florida election laws. According to HAVA, by this month, every precinct must have a touch-screen or specially equipped optical-scan device for handicapped access. The ES&S AutoMark system has an audio component that lets the blind vote.

However, in an interview with Computerworld, Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho said that Omaha-based ES&S, for reasons that are unclear, decided not to go through with what would have been a $1.8 million deal. That decision has forced election officials to search for another way to meet the HAVA compliance deadline. If the county remains a Diebold customer, it will have to purchase that vendor's touch-screen e-voting systems to comply with the handicapped accessibility laws. That is something Sancho has been reluctant to do because of concerns that the touch-screen machines lack the necessary security and don't create paper receipts for voters. Leon County had planned to have paper-receipt verified voting systems in every precinct in time for the fall elections.

Standardizing on ES&S would have simplified things, allowing for one set of devices and a single data format for tallying votes. Sancho said Diebold won't allow its products to be used with any other vendor's gear because that would violate copyright laws protecting its proprietary technology. What's next for the county is uncertain.

"At this point, it's not clear what we'll do," said Sancho, who has been talking with lawyers about the county's options. "I've got two major entities in the elections business that simply don't have the time to deal with Leon County."

Sancho has been public with his doubts about electronic voting gear reliability, and has even sponsored hacks into his own Diebold AccuVote optical scan systems -- a move that led to a somewhat strained relationship with Diebold. The Leon County hacks inspired the California secretary of state to sponsor similar tests there (see "Diebold faces e-voting machine hack test in California").

Sancho has another reason to look for a solution. Unless the county has HAVA-compliant equipment in place by the end of this month, it stands to lose half a million dollars in federal grant money.

ES&S's explanation of its decision offered few details. "Toward the end of last year, we were presented with the possibility of entering into a long-term relationship with the county," an ES&S spokesman said via e-mail. "After a great deal of careful consideration, we made the decision not to enter into an agreement to provide equipment and services to the county. After evaluating all of the information available to us at the time, we determined that we were unlikely to have an effective partnership with the county."

A Diebold spokesman said that the state of Florida hasn't certified any printers to work with its touch-screen machines. The company also has concerns about the vote accuracy of hybrid systems. "We can't vouch for the integrity of a competitor's product working with our system." The relationship with Leon County currently remains unchanged, he said.

Meanwhile, California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson's office has told all e-voting hardware vendors seeking certification in time for their equipment to be used in the June 2006 elections to have their applications in by the end of this week. "The reason is that we have teams standing by, at the ready, but we cannot review or certify any systems which have not been submitted to our office," said a spokeswoman for McPherson. "It is one more proactive measure the secretary is taking to get as many systems through the process as possible."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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