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Ohio Election Portends Trouble

Ohio Election Portends Trouble
Ohio Election Portends Trouble,71999-0.html 

By Kim Zetter
Oct, 31, 2006

Six years ago the world watched dumbfounded as the Florida 2000 fiasco 
exposed the messy underbelly of U.S. election administration. Since then 
states have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new electronic 
voting equipment to ensure that the nation would never experience such 
mishaps again.

But two recent and lengthy reports examining this year's May primary in 
Cuyahoga County, Ohio -- a pivotal state where the electoral votes gave 
President Bush his second win in 2004 -- make it clear that Florida-like 
fiascos are far from behind us.

The reports, totaling more than 500 pages, paint a disturbing picture of 
how million-dollar equipment and security safeguards can quickly be 
undone by poor product design, improper election procedures and 
inadequate training. From destroyed ballots and vote totals that didn't 
add up to lost equipment and breaches in security protocols, Cuyahoga's 
primary is a perfect study in how not to run an election.

The findings have ominous national implications. Cuyahoga County could 
play an important role in deciding two races in next week's election 
that will help decide which party controls the Senate and House. But one 
of the reports concluded that problems in the county were so extensive 
that meaningful improvements likely could not be achieved before that 
election, or even before the 2008 presidential election.

Moreover, few voting activists and election experts believe the problems 
are unique to Cuyahoga.

"I suspect that Cuyahoga County may be below average (in terms of how 
well it ran its election), but if you lift up the rock and look at 
election administration across the country, you'll see the same thing 
elsewhere," says David Dill, Stanford computer scientist and founder of, a proponent of paper-verified elections.

The problems in Cuyahoga County, a heavily Democratic county that 
encompasses Cleveland, began with a glitch in the design of the 
optical-scan ballots -- black lines separating sections of the ballot 
were too thick, and the fill-in bubbles were in the wrong place, 
preventing scanners from reading them.

The gaffe caused a six-day delay in election results, but wasn't 
insurmountable. The county hired an army of office temp workers to 
recast the votes from the 18,000 optical-scan ballots onto touch-screen 
machines -- both types of voting machines, made by Diebold Election 
Systems, were used in the county for the first time in the primary.

On the surface, that seemed to solve the problem. But a post-election 
audit of votes and election procedures revealed deeper issues in the way 
the state's most populous county ran its primary -- problems that, if 
not fixed, could open the state to serious legal challenges from 
candidates and voters in a close election.

Among the findings in one report [1] (.pdf) prepared by the Cuyahoga 
Election Review Panel:

* Due to poor chain of custody for supplies and equipment, 812 
  voter-access cards (which voters place in touch-screen machines to 
  cast their ballot) were lost, along with 215 card encoders, which 
  program the voter-access cards. Three hundred thirteen keys to the 
  voting machines' memory-card compartments, where votes are stored, 
  also went missing.
* Officials set up two user accounts on the computer running 
  vote-tabulation software, then assigned one password to both accounts 
  and allowed multiple people to use them, thwarting any effort to 
  identify individuals who might access and alter the system.
* Sixty Board of Election employees took touch-screen machines home a 
  weekend before the election to test a procedure for transmitting data 
  on election night.
* The election board hired 69 taxis to transport observers to precincts 
  to collect memory cards and paper rolls on election night. But many 
  cab drivers ended up gathering the materials themselves, and about 
  half the cabs returned to the warehouse with election data, but no 
* In at least 79 precincts the number of voters who signed the poll 
  books didn't match the number of ballots cast. At least eight 
  precincts had more ballots cast than registered voters. Because some 
  polling places served several precincts, some of the discrepancies are 
  explained by voters being directed to the wrong machines, an error 
  that did not result in uncounted votes. But even when investigators 
  tallied ballots and signatures for all precincts in a polling place, 
  15 locations still had mismatches. In one case investigators found 342 
  more voters than ballots.

There were also problems with tracking the voting machines themselves, 
according to a second report (.pdf) produced by the California-based 
Election Science Institute. ESI was hired before the election by 
Cuyahoga's Board of Commissioners to audit the election and measure the 
accuracy, reliability and usability of the county's new voting machines.

Out of 467 touch-screen machines assigned to 145 precincts that ESI 
audited, officials couldn't locate 29 machines after the election, 
despite days of searching. And 24 machines that were found had no data 
on them. "All their paperwork says (the machines) were deployed to 
polling locations but we can't figure out why there's no election data 
on them," says ESI founder Steve Hertzberg.

It's possible the machines were sent to polls but never used -- perhaps 
they malfunctioned or voter turnout was so low the machines weren't 
needed. But so far no explanation has been forthcoming. Cuyahoga County 
election director Michael Vu responded to initial questions from Wired 
News, but did not respond to follow-up questions about the missing 
machines and data

Experts say the chaos in Cuyahoga is a bellwether of broader 
election-administration problems nationwide.

"It should be a general wake-up call for all states and localities to 
make sure they have addressed these problems in their statutes and 
procedures to make sure that they don't run into the same problems," 
says Thad Hall, a political science professor at the University of Utah 
who assisted with the ESI report. "People should be taking all of this 
very seriously."

Beyond sloppy procedures, the ESI report found technological problems 
with the printers installed on the county's 5,000 new Diebold 
touch-screen machines. The printers produce the voter-verified paper 
audit trail, or VVPAT, mandated by a new Ohio law.

The printer problems turned up when the ESI team set out to examine the 
accuracy of the touch-screen machines. The team compared four sets of 
vote data from a sampling of 145 precincts. The data included electronic 
votes recorded on removable memory cards (used to tally the official 
count); electronic votes on flash memory inside the touch-screen 
machines; individual ballots on the paper-audit trail rolls; and a 
summary total of those ballots printed at the end of the paper roll.

Although the majority of the paper rolls were easy to read, 40 rolls 
contained ballots that were physically compromised in some way: Rolls 
were crumpled accordion-style due to paper jams; ballots were printed 
atop one another, making them illegible; rolls were torn and taped. 
Eighty-seven rolls were missing entirely.

The compromised ballots and missing paper rolls demonstrate that the 
paper trails voting activists spent three years pressuring states to 
mandate could be useless in a recount. Per Ohio's recount law, and laws 
in 14 other states that mandate paper trails, the paper roll is the 
official ballot in a recount.

But the law doesn't address what to do when paper records are illegible. 
An administrative rule from the secretary of state says the official 
ballot would revert to the electronic record if the paper trail were 
illegible or destroyed, which, in theory, would get every vote counted.'s Dill cautions that if just 10 percent of an 
election's paper rolls are compromised, the purpose of the paper is 
defeated, and a door is once again open for someone to rig an election.

"If someone wanted to fix an election they could program the machine to 
produce a certain number of faulty paper ballots so that (officials) had 
to count the electronic ones instead," Dill says.

The machines should be designed to shut down if the printer jams or poll 
workers load the paper improperly, says Dill.

Dan Tokaji, assistant professor of law at Ohio State University, says 
the issue of illegible ballots and conflicting recount laws clearly 
weren't well thought out in advance by Ohio lawmakers.

"It's quite possible we could see litigation over this issue in the 
event of a close election," he says, noting that the same problem could 
arise in other states. "We know about the problems with paper trails in 
Cuyahoga, but in other counties both in and out of Ohio we really 
haven't done a careful assessment. So I don't think we know how 
widespread the problems with the VVPAT system are."

And unfortunately, he says, most people don't worry about the problems 
or fix them until after there's a blowup similar to what occurred in 

Vote discrepancies also turn up in the ESI audit, and voting activists 
seized on this aspect of the investigation as evidence that there were 
problems with Diebold's software. On about 80 paper rolls, the votes 
totaled from the individual ballots didn't match the summary of votes at 
the end of the roll. In most cases the count was off by one to five 
votes, but in some it was off by more than 25.

Here, too, paper jams were the culprit, says Gary Smith, director of 
elections in Forsyth County, Georgia, who led the paper count for ESI. 
Printer problems led to missing and illegible ballots, causing the final 
numbers to be higher than the sum of the individual ballots. When his 
team printed fresh paper records from the memory cards, the totals from 
individual ballots matched the summaries at the end of the rolls.

The ESI audit also uncovered mismatches between paper-vote totals and 
the digital totals from the memory cards, and 13 cases in which the 
removable memory cards and the flash memory inside the machines didn't 
match up.

Diebold said there are innocent explanations for why memory card totals 
didn't match flash memory totals. Eleven of the discrepancies were a 
side effect of election workers' transference of botched optical-scan 
votes onto touch-screen machines. Because they failed to also add the 
optical-scan votes to the flash-memory data from those machines, the two 
sets of data didn't match when ESI compared them.

The other two discrepancies occurred when poll workers placed memory 
cards in the wrong machines, then moved the cards to the correct 
machines after voters had already cast a few ballots on the machines -- 
a switch that did not affect the voting tally, but seriously complicated 
the audit afterward. When election staff gave ESI data for those 
machines, they were unaware that some votes on these memory cards were 
backed up on the flash memory of other machines.

Cuyahoga County election director Vu says his staff has verified 
Diebold's conclusions but ESI has not had a chance to independently 
verify the explanations. However, all these issues point to the most 
important finding from Cuyahoga County, says Hertzberg: it was so 
difficult for ESI to get accurate and complete data to conduct its 

ESI had been assured by Vu's office that the data ESI was auditing did 
not include optical-scan votes, says Hertzberg. In fact, ESI had to 
request data from Vu's office six times because it kept getting the 
wrong data, or data that was tainted with optical-scan votes.

Vu's staff also had a dozen different versions of the same vote data but 
no file-management system or naming conventions to keep track of them or 
explain why so many versions existed, says Hertzberg. "So these guys 
were sitting there trying to search for which data set to give us and 
they couldn't figure it out," he says.

Political scientist Michael Alvarez of the Caltech/MIT Voting Project, 
who helped with the ESI report, agrees: Although many people focused on 
the vote discrepancies, the fact that ESI found it so difficult to 
conduct an audit is the biggest problem, and it doesn't bode well for 
what could happen in November or in a close presidential race.

"An independent entity, be they ESI or be they anybody else ... should 
be able to walk in and very easily replicate that election outcome," 
Alvarez says. "That's the sort of thing that is what induces voter and 
candidate and media confidence in the process."

Vu says his office was overwhelmed with the task of adjusting to new 
procedures and equipment. His staff also never anticipated that poll 
workers would swap memory cards between machines; they're addressing 
this issue in poll worker training for November. "For the most part," he 
says, "the majority of the county did relatively well."

Hertzberg worries that things could be worse Nov. 7 because turnout is 
expected to be larger than in the primary. Cuyahoga has 1 million 
registered voters. Hertzberg urged Vu to develop and practice a manual 
count procedure before Election Day, but says there's been no movement.

"It's going to take time," Vu says. "You can't go from having problems 
in one election to perfection in the next election." Vu says he has made 
some changes for November, but mentions only issues with poll worker 
training, pay and recruitment.

The county Board of Elections and Board of Commissioners did recently 
appoint The Center for Election Integrity at Cleveland State University 
to monitor progress in the implementation of reforms recommended by the 
two reports, and the group will monitor the county's actual conduct 
during elections.


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