Tape may confirm whether results were altered
Potentially important evidence is missing in the Pima County Democrats’ lawsuit against the county Elections Division regarding how votes were handled in a 2006 election.
No one seems to know what happened to a computer tape record of the May 16, 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election. The tape was sent to the the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office after the election last year and reportedly was returned to the county.
The county elections director made the revelation in his testimony Wed-nesday in a Pima County Superior Court trial over the Democrats’ lawsuit.
The case goes to the heart of the democratic process – the security of voting and vote counting – and is one of several that have played out across the country since the 2000 presidential election results were disputed in Florida over the counting of “hanging chad” ballots.
Use of computerized voting machines and vote tabulating systems has heightened worries that ballot boxes and vote counting can be tampered with in ways not available with old paper ballot and hand-counting methods.
In Wednesday’s trial testimony, County Elections Director Brad Nelson said the Secretary of State’s Office sent the county a box of computer tape records of elections dating back to 2001.
The box was mistakenly delivered to the county Recorder’s Office, then sent to the Elections Division, Nelson said.
Nelson said the box was delivered to “the counter” at elections offices and that he never saw the records tape.
“The tape should have been in there,” he said in response to questions from Bill Risner, the lawyer representing Democrats in the lawsuit.
They filed their suit after county elections officials refused to give party computer consultants a copy of the database, which Democrats say could show if the election ballot or eventual results were altered.
It was unclear Wednesday whether the missing computer tape would have provided the Democrats with any of the information they’re seeking.
Wednesday’s session was the second of a planned three-day trial, and Risner finished calling witnesses to support the Democrats’ effort to get Superior Court Judge Michael Miller to order the Elections Division to give Democrats the database.
Both Democrats and the county last summer asked for an investigation into whether the 2006 election may have been tainted.
The county hired a computer consultant, who recommended numerous changes in security in the Elections Division but found no evidence of vote tampering.
In court Wednesday, Risner also questioned Bryan Crane, the Elections Division’s chief computer programmer, who has been under fire for allegedly removing elections data on tapes and taking compact discs to his home over several recent election cycles for safekeeping against fire.
Crane was criticized for printing election summaries before polls close on election day. That was done to check to see if the voting system was correctly tabulating votes, witnesses said in testimony Wednesday.
Both Nelson and Crane said the actions were not illegal, as long as the summaries were not provided to outside parties before the polls closed and were not used to influence the outcome of elections.
Crane said he did not remember the reason he printed the vote summaries early for the RTA election.
“The summary reports were printed for different reasons, and I don’t recall the reason for the RTA,” Crane testified.
The Democrats are contending that the combined use of the county Diebold-GEMS voting system and Microsoft Access software provides an easily accessible – and almost undetectable – “back door” that could be used to alter elections data and switch the actual vote counts in an election.
But any alterations made to the Diebold-GEMS system may yet be retained in the elections database, which is why the Democrats want to examine it.
Diebold Election Systems (now Premiere Election Solutions) has been at the center of the electronic voting debate. The company’s voting system and software are used in about 30 percent of counties nationwide.
Its CEO, Walden O’Dell, signed onto President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, having sold his computer voting machines throughout Ohio and promising to “deliver” Ohio’s electoral votes to Bush.
Ohio’s 2004 exit polls predicted a John Kerry victory. The president took the state, prompting claims of a stolen election.
O’Dell resigned amid the controversy, and Diebold spun off Premiere Election Solutions to operate independently, said Chris Riggall, company spokesman.
He said naysayers want to turn back the clock by 100 years.
“They keep moving the goal line,” Riggall said. “It’s just that there are some people who now think the only way to hold a secure election is to hand count paper ballots.”
The voting machines, including those used in Pima County, now produce a paper trail that can be audited, and the company no longer refuses to keep secret how its software works.
Computer voting has redundancies built in that older machines could never promise, Riggall said. Moreover, all voting systems have software and integrity tests at the federal, state and local levels, he said.
“What we have today is a federal system that mandates that a voting system goes through a very stringent and elaborate federal certification process,” Riggall said.
The missing tape revelation and the Democrats’ suit about the integrity of county vote-counting machines are similar to conflicts occurring in various spots around the country since the 2000 presidential election.
In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which attempted to impose national standards on elections and provided almost $4 billion to the states to reform their voting systems.
Most of the states turned to electronic vote-counting machines, the security of which has sparked vigorous debate. Experts in the elections field either believe in the security of computerized balloting or fret about campaigns being electronically stolen by hackers, election workers or manufacturers building party preferences into computer code.
In 2006 in Sarasota, Fla., nearly 18,000 people who thought they voteed in a congressional race didn’t. Democrat Christine Jennings lost to Republican Vern Buchanan by 373 votes. More than 230,000 ballots were cast in that congressional district.
Kathy Dent, the Sarasota County elections official, told several news outlets at the time that she had no idea why the vote discrepancy occurred because the machines tested as working. Jennings sued to see the machine’s programming code, but a Florida judge denied the request after two state audits also showed the machines were in working order.
Jennings turned to Congress for help. The federal Government Accountability Office has been investigating since early 2007. It has yet to produce a report stating what happened to the 18,000 missing votes.
The Sarasota vote was conducted on touchscreen voting machines that did not produce a paper ballot to verified the vote.
As a result of the Sarasota vote and other controversies, including the California secretary of state decertifying all of her state’s electronic voting machines last year after a test showed they could be easily hacked, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., this year sponsored an amendment of the Help America Vote Act.
Called the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, the amendment would, among other things, ban touchscreen voting and require paper ballots in all federal elections. The bill has stalled in committee.
Aug. 2006: Pima County supervisors vote to buy Diebold touchscreen voting machines for disabled voters. Buying any other machine would mean the Secretary of State’s Office would not reimburse the county. The county was required to buy touchscreen machines to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
Nov. 2006: Democrats find what they call “irregularities” involving how Pima County counted the votes during the election and ask for a full record of how the votes were counted. Pima County refuses, saying to release that information would compromise ballot security.
Feb. 2007: Pima County Democrats sue the county to get the information. The suit suggests that the May 2006 Regional Transportation Association election could have been altered by computer hacking.
Sept. 2007: An Arizona attorney general investigation finds Pima County’s election security needs to be improved but refuses to throw out the transportation election results.
By Garry Duffy, Blake Morlock