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
The machines in question are made by Election Systems and Software, the
largest voting machine company in the country, which is based in Omaha,
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withdrawn" appear in the slot where Jay Perez's name should have been.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
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
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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