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Cheh Opens Council Hearing on Election Problems

Saying the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics "essentially shut down" on the night of the Sept. 9 primary when thousands of phantom votes wrecked havoc with the results, Council member Mary Cheh opened a hearing this morning about the mishap with the stated goal of making sure the Nov. 4 election is "glitch free."

D.C. Council member David Catania was more to the point: "This is not a small matter," he said of the election night problems when thousands of write-in votes appeared and disappeared and had several candidates and their supporters at the board headquarters demanding answers late into the night.

The September primary problems came on the heels of the February presidential primary when the board had not supplied polling places with enough paper ballots.

"This goes to the very heart of our ability to govern ourselves," Catania said. "This is a dangerous slope that we are on."

For weeks, the board has been struggling to explain what happened last month, and in a report issued this week, said workers may have been moving too fast as they counted votes, but Cheh criticized the report, saying it still offered no answers.

Michelle M. Shafer, vice-president of Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that provides the District's voting equipment, was among the first witnesses this morning. She continued to assert the company's position that its equipment was not the source of the problems.

The board of elections had initially said it was a defective vote cartridge that had caused the problems.

"The voting machines all worked well," Shafer said. "In fact, the voting machine tapes were always consistent. In short, the results on election night were due to human error."
Sequoia officials went on to say that the District board's equipment is older and the city could benefit from updating its machinery. "We have been providing information on new equipment," Shafer said. "It is up to the District to decide how they want to spend" money.

Ed Smith, Sequoia vice president, said, more modern equipment is available that can indicate a problem on a cartridge. Community activists are also on the day-long witness roster, among them Dorothy Brizil, who has criticized the city's election process for decades.

But the star witnesses, members of the board of elections, will come this afternoon.

Hamil R. Harris

By Marcia Davis  |  October 3, 2008; 12:09 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Council  
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Next: Silverman at Council Hearing: Still Don't Know If Election Results Are Accurate


All of this effort, posturing, and political hocus pocus to cover up some mistake some human made.

Government --- what a gigantic waste of time.l

Posted by: curmudgeon10 | October 3, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

All of this effort, posturing, and political hocus pocus to cover up some mistake some human made.

Government --- what a gigantic waste of time.l

Posted by: curmudgeon10 | October 3, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Defective BOEE, not machines.

Posted by: Anon | October 3, 2008 4:09 PM | Report abuse

The Sequoia machines are a security disaster. See the California Secretary of State's report (she decided to decertify all of them) at

Also see a followup study by a team at the University of California Santa Barbara at

that includes a two-part video showing how easy it is to tamper with Sequoia machines.

I've also heard that some are saying the problems might have been caused by static electricity. That is entirely possible. Touch screen voting machines are vulnerable to electrostatic discharge and they aren't tested to a high enough standard. However, the likelihood of static electricity being the cause depends on what the relative humidity was that day and on factors such as what the floor coverings were at the polling places.

Posted by: Stan Klein | October 3, 2008 8:06 PM | Report abuse

As a technology professional, I'm astonished by this story. Yesterday on WAMU someone from BOEE was saying they think that the problem was data corruption, perhaps caused by static electricity. Fair enough, data corruption happens, no technology is perfectly reliable. What is astonishing is that this data corruption was apparently caught by BOEE staff eyeballing the data -- not by any error detection capability of the voting machines!

The implication is that either these machines do not have an error detecting capability, or that BOEE is not using it. Error detection is incredibly easy to implement, and is now standard in even the cheapest gadgets.

Implementing a computer system -- of any kind -- that relies on human eyeballs to detect data corruption is professional malpractice. Such a system in a critical application like a voting machine is downright criminal.

Posted by: Washpost4 | October 3, 2008 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Washpost4 is correct. And note that if your error catching relies on eyeballing the data, then you'll only catch errors that are large enough to be obviously ridiculous, as in this case. Imagine the error had been only a few hundred votes, producing a result that was still believable. Then with no provision for auditing the results the BOEE wouldn't have noticed and we'd never have known about it.

Posted by: KCinDC | October 3, 2008 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Washpost4 nails it. Spot on.

We'd never allow something like this in avionics software. Why do we put up with it in voting software?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 4, 2008 1:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree the machines are only part of the process. A mistake of that caliber should of been noticed even at a first glance by BOEE officials before they where handed off to the media. It sounds like the county was leaning on the vendor to do their job for them.

Accountability for decade old machines isn't satisfactory and should be upgraded to more advanced technology. How long does the average laptop last before replacement? 2-5 years maybe.

Technology in my opinion is a necessity with counting of these kinds of numbers in the amount of time that its required to be reported. Why aren't we spending our tax dollars to guarantee our votes count yet we will spend Billions in Iraq while they save their money, and we'll spend billions to save corrupt greeedy business man on wallstreet?

Fix the problem and move forward. The problem was caught and realistically fixed in a timely fashion? If thats correct than what exactly is the issue at hand?

Who is in charge of running these machines? You find a proper person through education and background to run a cnc machine in a factory are these individuals qualified to be on the other side of a keyboard or any electronic device for that matter?

Posted by: Votes Count | October 4, 2008 1:40 AM | Report abuse

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