Sunday, February 22, 2009

State considers decertifying election software

The slow-motion crash continues....

State considers decertifying election software
Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
Posted: 02/22/2009 01:27:29 AM PST

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen is considering withdrawing
the state's approval of the flawed Premier Elections Solutions
software that resulted in almost 200 ballots disappearing from
Humboldt County's final November election results.

Bowen's office announced that it will hold a public hearing March 17
at her Sacramento office to discuss the findings of its investigation
into the problem, and to take public comment on the possible
withdrawal of the state's approval of the voting system. Meanwhile,
the two other counties in the state that use the system are left
contemplating what its decertification would mean, and some election
advocates are lobbying for some punitive action to be taken against
Premier Elections Solutions.

"The public hearing is typically the last step in the process,"
Secretary of State spokeswoman Nicole Winger said. "It
offers one final opportunity for input, for the vendor to state their
side of the story and for the public to give comments or input as
well. It's a chance for everyone to be on the same page and see where
things stand."

The software error reportedly first came to Bowen's attention after
Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich informed her office
that the first-of-its-kind Humboldt County Election Transparency
Project had uncovered a discrepancy in the final vote tallies from the
county's November election.

The project found that 197 vote-by-mail ballots, which had
been scanned through vote counting machines, mysteriously disappeared
from the final ballot tally as tabulated by Premier Elections
Solutions' GEMS software.

The problem was traced to a programming error with the specific
version of the software used in Humboldt County -- GEMS version
1.18.19 -- a programming error that sometimes results in the first
deck of ballots scanned through the vote counting machine vanishing
without a trace from the final results.

Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Elections Solutions, said in a
previous interview with the Times-Standard that the company had known
of the programming error since 2004. Saying the certification process
is too lengthy and time consuming to have had the software
re-certified, Riggall said Premier instead issued "work around" orders
by e-mail to its customers instructing them how to take steps to avoid
the problem.

The terse, 40-word e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the
Times-Standard, tells the vendor's customers that it is "very
important that you follow these instructions," and urges them to

the Premier's representatives with any questions.

In two other California counties using the same software -- San Luis
Obispo and Santa Barbara -- elections officials included the "work
around" orders into their written Election Day procedures. In Humboldt
County, then Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams said he received the
e-mail, but failed to pass the information along to his boss at the
time, Crnich, or his successor, Kelly Sanders.

The transparency project that discovered the error passes every ballot
cast in an election through an optical scanner after it's been
officially counted. The ballot images are then placed online, along
with open-source software, created by volunteer Mitch Trachtenberg,
that allows viewers to sort the ballots by precinct and scrutinize the
vote as they see fit.

Trachtenberg and Crnich met last week with Bowen and members of her
staff to offer a demonstration of the project, and they said the
presentation went well.

Careful to say that Bowen has not yet endorsed the transparency
project, Winger said her office was certainly interested to hear about
the fledgling project.

"Secretary Bowen is always interested to hear the details of efforts
to make elections more transparent, auditable and accurate," Winger
said. "She certainly is open to ideas about how to accomplish that on
a secure, statewide level."

Reached Thursday, Riggall said Premier believes the version of its
GEMS software in question should be taken out of circulation in

"We completely agree that that version of GEMS should not continue to
be used," he said. "We absolutely have no problem and certainly would
concur were the secretary to take that action directing counties to
use a later version."

In Humboldt County, the Board of Supervisors has already approved a
plan for the county elections office to switch to Hart InterCivic
equipment. Crnich is currently working with Bowen's office to come up
with a plan to fund the switch, which will then come back before the
board for final approval.

But, the possible decertification of the version of GEMS currently
used in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo is raising some questions
there for elections officials, especially with the state calling a
special election in May. Officials in both counties said they are
still looking into how they would proceed if the approval of their
voting systems were to be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, some in the election watchdog community are pushing for
either the Secretary of State's Office or the federal Elections
Assistance Commission to pursue punitive actions against Premier,
which they say knowingly kept elections systems in place that had
unacceptable error rates.

Riggall said Premier has done nothing disingenuous, and notified its
customers immediately upon discovering the error in its vote counting
system, carefully instructing them how to "work around" the problem.

"I don't see that there is anything -- absolutely nothing -- in how we
have handled this issue going back several years that has been
disingenuous," Riggall said.

Trachtenberg, on the other hand, said he thinks it would be
appropriate for the Department of Justice or the Attorney General's
Office to investigate the matter.

"I think that would be totally appropriate," Trachtenberg said. "They
sold software that doesn't work."

Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or