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The Mysterious Case of Ohio's Voting Machines PDF Print Email
By Kim Zetter   
March 28, 2008

This article was posted at the Wired.com Threat Level Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.


In 2006, Ohio became the poster-child for bad election administration when two lengthy reports examining Cuyahoga County's election procedures uncovered multiple serious problems (the county lost 812 voter-access cards that allow a voter to cast a ballot on machines; it also lost 313 keys to the memory-card compartments where votes are stored on machines and hired taxi drivers to drive to election precincts and pick up the memory cards that contained the votes).



Then in 2007, two election officials in Cuyahoga County were convicted of rigging a recount in the 2004 presidential election by cherry-picking ballots to recount that they knew would match the official count rather than randomly picking ballots.


Now we have a mystery involving touch-screen voting machines used in Franklin County, Ohio, that has launched a criminal investigation to determine why a message that some voters saw on their touch-screen machines didn't appear on other machines.


The issue has raised a number of questions about when the electronic ballot on the machines was programmed and by whom. A preliminary investigation has also uncovered a couple of additional surprises about the machines -- it turns out that not only did the county fail to conduct mandatory tests on the machines before the November election, but a county programmer had also intentionally disabled an internal auditing function for logging any changes made to the machine software, possibly thwarting investigators' ability to determine what occurred with the ballots and who was responsible. The programmer says the voting machine company advised him to disable the log to speed up the programming process.


The machines in question are made by Election Systems and Software, the largest voting machine company in the country, which is based in Omaha, Nebraska.

The issue first arose when Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's secretary of state and chief election official, reported that on November 6 when she was casting her ballot, she saw a gray bar and the words "candidate withdrawn" appear in the slot where Jay Perez's name should have been. Perez, a Democrat who was running for Franklin County Municipal Judge, did indeed withdraw from the race on September 28 so as not to spoil the race for the Democratic frontrunner Patsy Thomas. Therefore the message that Brunner says she saw on her machine would not have been out of place -- that is, if election officials had actually programmed the machines to display the message (they say they didn't).


But Brunner's husband, who was voting on the machine next to her that day, says he saw no such message on his ballot. Instead, he saw Perez's name. Perez himself reported that his voting machine also displayed his name.


So why did some voters receive ballots that displayed Perez's name while others received ballots that indicated he'd withdrawn from the race? And who removed Perez's name from the latter ballots?O


One theory that's been posited is that all of the machines were supposed to have had Perez's name removed but that someone tinkered with the ballots to restore his name to dilute the Democratic vote and help the Republican candidate win.


But Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections, says the county never removed Perez's name from any ballot -- despite the fact that the candidate had withdrawn from the race in September -- and that therefore his name should have appeared on every ballot. Piscitelli says that Perez withdrew from the election one day after the county had already finalized its ballot and sent the order for its paper ballots to the printer, therefore it couldn't remove his name at that point. Although conceivably election officials could still have removed Perez's name from the electronic ballots on the voting machines at that point, Piscitelli says they didn't because they didn't have time.


He says they were using 1,100 different ballot styles on 4,200 voting machines and all of them would have needed to be updated. They also would have had to re-record the audio ballot designed for disabled voters. They would have had to do this at the same time that they were making preparations for the start of absentee voting, which was slated to begin a couple of days after Perez withdrew.


"We just didn't have the time to make all the changes necessary to remove his name from the ballot," he says.


But if election officials didn't remove Perez's name from any ballots, then why did his name disappear from Brunner's ballot? A handful of other voters in at least four Franklin County precincts have also come forward to tell the secretary of state's staff that Perez's name was also removed from their ballots and replaced with a gray bar and "candidate withdrawn" message.


Piscitelli can offer no explanation for this. "It's our contention," he says "that (Perez's name) appeared everywhere it should have. We've yet to see any evidence that it didn't appear."


A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office says that two forensic specialists from their computer crimes division have extracted data from 15 machines that they believe may have been the ones to display the gray bar and message. They're examining the data to determine if there was any misconduct or any improper use of the machines that might lead to criminal charges.


But it remains to be seen how conclusive their examination can be, given that an audit log on the machines was turned off.


Franklin County's Piscitelli defends the decision that a county programmer made to turn it off, saying there is no state law that prevents election officials from turning off a log.


He also says suggestions that the log was turned off to cover changes that someone might have made to Perez's name on the ballot are unfounded. The log, he says, was turned off in April 2007, eight months before the November election, and that the county conducted two other elections between April and November. He adds that there were additional logs on the machines that could not be turned off and were enabled during the November election. He says his office has turned over those logs to the attorney general's investigators.

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