Extra votes haunt two recent elections, run by two different companies, in two different places
PLUS: Sequoia shocker! Company agrees to turn over source code to D.C. without even a fight!
By Brad Friedman on 6/8/2009, 5:28pm PT  

Two stories of thousands of "phantom votes" being added to election result totals by electronic voting system were in the news over the past couple of days.

One is some news in the older story of 1,500 votes added to a precinct's results in D.C.'s primary election last September. The maker of the failed voting system, Sequoia Voting Systems, Inc., originally tried to blame "static electricity" and then "human error" for the failure. But as the D.C. City Council was having none of it, the company has now agreed to allow an independent inspection of its hardware and software, in order to avoid yet another expensive court battle for the beleaguered company.

The other story concerns nearly 5,000 "phantom" ballots added by the ES&S AutoMark optical-scan system used in last week's Rapid City (Pennington County), South Dakota, City Council race, for some still unknown reason, currently chalked up for now to "software glitch." The discovery of the failure led to a change in the originally reported election results.

The skinny on both stories, and an extra observation or two on the Sequoia/D.C. matter, follow below...

The S. Dakota story first, from Wired's Kim Zetter...

A software glitch in an optical-scan voting system added nearly 5,000 ballots to the tally of a South Dakota election this week. The error was discovered only after the election results were called, according to the Rapid City Journal.

The problem occurred when officials combined tallies from optical-scan machines in three precincts in Rapid City in Pennington County. The tabulation software used to combine the totals added 4,875 phantom ballots to the count. The system indicated 10,488 ballots were cast when, in reality, only 5,613 ballots existed, indicating that the glitch wasn't simply a matter of doubling the votes.
The incumbent in a city council race who appeared to win the race went to bed believing he'd received just 49.96 percent of the vote, which was more than his opponents received but short of the 50 percent plus 1 vote he needed to avoid a runoff election. A recount found that he actually received 51.8 percent of the votes.

Pennington County uses Auto-Mark machines and tabulation software from Election Systems and Software [ES&S].

And back in D.C. where thousands of "phantom votes" were added in last year's election, Sequoia is being forced to...um...I mean, agreeing...to turn over source code for independent examination, according to Tim Craig at WaPo...

Sequoia Voting Systems agreed yesterday to turn over sensitive information to the D.C. Council about how the District's voting machines work and tabulate results, setting the stage for one of the most comprehensive probes on the reliability of electronic voting equipment.

The agreement is a response to the election night chaos in the September primaries, when Sequoia machines tabulated more ballots than there were voters, resulting in thousands of phantom votes.

Electoral change advocates said the agreement, finalized yesterday in D.C. Superior Court after the city threatened a lawsuit, is one of the first times a manufacturer of electronic voting machines has been forced to endure a public vetting of how its equipment tabulates returns.

"It is certainly going to serve as a precedent not just for further investigations in the District of Columbia, but around the country," said John Bonifaz, legal director for Voter Action, a national voting rights organization.

According to a copy of the agreement, the District will have access to technical information on the internal workings of the machines, known as the source code.

In the same story, there was an interesting shift in tone from Sequoia's previously-incorrigible spokesperson, and denialist-in-chief, Michelle Shaffer...

Michelle M. Shafer, vice president of communications and external affairs for Sequoia, said the company is "cooperating with the city council to resolve this matter without incurring further legal costs."

"We would like to move past this and resolve this once and for all and do what we can to make sure voters in D.C. feel confident about their voting system," Shafer said.

That statement is a pleasant, and noteworthy change of pace for Shafer.

VotersUnite.org's Ellen Theisen asked over the weekend, in the 'Daily Voting News', while linking to our exposé from last year, revealing that Sequoia doesn't actually own the Intellectual Property rights to their own systems (despite arguing to protect them in court case after case)...

One of Sequoia's original suggestions [for the "phantom votes" in D.C.] was that it was static discharge or human error. But the DC Board of Elections didn't buy it. They pursued, investigated, and finally decided to go to court. Sequoia immediately caved. Could it be because Sequoia doesn't own the intellectual property rights?

Frankly, given what we exposed here about Sequoia last year, I think they'd be ill-advised to try and make their IP-related "proprietary trade secrets" claims in court any more. Particularly as the owner is the Venezuelan Chavez-tied firm that they told federal investigators they'd entirely divested from. Sequoia has also had serious cash issues over the past year, and the cost of continuously going to court to protect something they don't even own --- in state after state, following failure after failure --- has got to be taking its toll.

If Shafer would like to inform us otherwise, of course, on any of this, she's welcome to. She long ago stopped responding to The BRAD BLOG's requests for comment.

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