Monday 14 July 2008
by: Kim Zetter, Wired
During New York state's transition from lever voting machines, officials have found problems with 50 percent of the ImageCast optical-scan machines delivered from Sequoia Voting Systems.
New York state is in the process of replacing its lever voting machines with new voting equipment, but the state revealed recently that it has found problems with 50 percent of the roughly 1,500 ImageCast optical-scan machines that Sequoia Voting Systems has delivered to the state so far - machines that are slated to be used by dozens of counties in the state's September 9 primary and November 4 presidential election.
Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, expressed frustration with the vendor, saying it appeared that Sequoia was using the state's acceptance testing process to find problems with its machines in lieu of a sound quality-control process.
"There's no way the vendor could be adequately reviewing the machines and having so many problems," he told Threat Level. "What it tells us is that the vendor just throws this stuff over the transom and does not do any alpha- or beta-testing of their own before they apply for certification testing. Then they expect that we'll identify technical glitches and then they'll correct those glitches. But correction of those glitches is an extraordinarily time-consuming process. And its very disappointing that this equipment is not ready for prime time."
One main problem with the machines has been the printers. The ImageCast machines are special optical-scan machines that include an LCD screen, a printer and a ballot-marking device that allows disabled voters to use them. Disabled voters view the ballot on screen or hear it read to them through headphones, then make their selection using special attachments (a device with buttons or a sipping straw), after which the machine prints out a paper ballot that gets read by the optical scanner component.
The printer, Kellner noted, is a core component of the machine. But they malfunction "if you don't feed the paper exactly right or if the buttons aren't pushed just right," he said. They also have trouble handling write-in candidates. If a voter's writing exceeds a certain width, Kellner said the printer shuts down without indicating why it's shutting down.
"These are serious glitches that should have been picked up in the vendor's own quality-control process," he said.
But Sequoia isn't the only problem, according to counties who have reported receiving problematic machines from the state Board of Elections after the board was supposed to have tested and certified the machines. The Board of Elections is examining all of the new machines before sending them out to counties.
In Nassau County alone, the largest voting district outside of New York City, officials found problems with 85 percent of the 240 ImageCast machines it received so far - problems that the county characterized in a letter as "substantial operational flaws that render them unusable or that require major repairs."
The problems include printers jamming, broken monitors and wheels, machines that wouldn't boot up, and misaligned printer covers that prevented the covers from closing completely, creating security concerns.
The county rejected 48 machines right at delivery, due to physical damage. Another 58 machines exhibited problems during testing, according to William Biamonte, the Democratic elections commissioner for Nassau County. [New York counties have two election directors - one each from the Democratic and Republican parties - to avoid charges of unfair elections.] Some of the latter machines, he said, shook dramatically when they were running and workers either had to shut them down or the machines shut themselves down from the vibration. Other machines had dead batteries or batteries that wouldn't hold a two-hour charge, as they were required to do.
Another 112 machines produced a "printer failure" error message. Biamonte says this was the result of a change Sequoia made to its firmware. He said that when he received his first batch of machines about a month ago, the machines had "horrific paper jams." To fix the problem, Sequoia loaded new firmware on the systems to speed up the printer, but in doing so disabled the USB port on machines, resulting in the "printer failure" error messages.
Biamonte, who blames the Board of Elections in part for not noticing the problems before forwarding the machines to counties, said a state worker told him he should instruct election workers to just ignore the error message.
"How is that acceptable?" Biamonte asked. "Say you buy a brand new car and it works good but the oil gauge isn't working. They tell you, Just drive it anyway. These are brand new machines. $12,000 each. We cannot in confidence send (them) out to a polling place knowing they have this printer error. How do we know if we really do have a printer failure?"
Nassau County, which has nearly 900,000 registered voters, is slated to receive 450 machines total, but has refused delivery on the remaining machines and has asked a federal court to order Sequoia to repair the machines. It also requested a review of the state Board of Elections' acceptance and testing procedures. That review was completed Thursday by a quality-control firm hired by the Board of Elections. The firm's report found that the Board of Elections' procedures for accepting and testing the machines were adequate, but acknowledged that some problems may have occurred due to a lack of communication between state election officials and county officials.
Biamonte, who respects Kellner and thinks he feels as frustrated by Sequoia as he does, nonetheless called the report "ridiculous" and "disingenuous," saying that cracked screens and jammed printers weren't the result of communication problems.
The ImageCast machines are not actually made by Sequoia but by a Canadian subcontractor named Dominion, which is based in Toronto, and a sub-subcontractor named Jaco Electronics, based in New York. A press release on Sequoia's site noted that Jaco won the contract to produce 4,500 optical-scan machines for Sequoia/Dominion only in April of this year and needed to add 40 to 50 people to its workforce to fulfill the contract. Nassau County began receiving its machines from the state in June, which suggests that the machines may have been rushed through production too quickly.
A Sequoia spokeswoman would say only that the company is working with state officials "to identify and resolve any voting equipment concerns they may have."
The Sequoia ImageCast machines were designed exclusively for New York and are not currently being used in any other state. The machines have not yet been federally certified, though Kellner says Sequoia assured the state last January that federal testing and certification would be completed on the system by April or May, before the state began its own testing and certification of the equipment.
New York doesn't have a choice about using the machines this year. The state was sued by the Department of Justice for failing to meet a federal deadline for having accessible voting machines in place. The Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 requires every voting precinct to provide at least one accessible voting machine for disabled voters by 2006. New York is just now getting the machines in place.
Because the ImageCast machines are still undergoing certification testing by the state, only the ballot marking device - and not the scanning portion of the machine - will be used in New York this year. The counties will continue to use lever machines for non-disabled voters until 2009. The printed paper ballots produced by the ballot-marking portion of the machine will be read by hand, rather than scanned.
One interesting tidbit turned up in the quality-control report that examined the state board of elections acceptance and testing process. The report reveals that a voting machine vendor is the first to examine the machines when they arrive to the state's voting machine warehouse from the manufacturer. The vendor representative is supposed to examine the machines for missing or damaged parts.
Once the vendor representative has signed off on the equipment, it goes to temporary workers that the state has hired to test the machines. Biamonte says the temp workers are college students, who work under the supervision of board of election employees.
After the testing is completed, a tamper-evident seal is placed on the machines and they're passed back to the vendor representative who is responsible for shipping off the machines to counties.
This creates chain-of-custody concerns that Biamonte says are exacerbated by the fact that when he received his machines in Nassau County, a number of the tamper-evident seals on them were cracked.
"How do we know this wasn't tampered with?" he said.