It is an uncommon day when the nation's second-largest provider of voting systems concedes that its flagship products in California have significant security flaws and that it supplied hundreds of poorly designed electronic-voting devices that disenfranchised voters in the March presidential primary.
Diebold Election Systems Inc. President Bob Urosevich admitted this and more, and apologized "for any embarrassment."
"We were caught. We apologize for that," Urosevich said of the mass failures of devices needed to call up digital ballots.
Poll workers in Alameda and San Diego counties hadn't been trained on ways around their failure, and San Diego County chose not to supply polls with backup paper ballots, crippling the largest roll-out of e-voting in the nation March 2. Unknown thousands of voters were turned away at the polls.
"We're sorry for the inconvenience of the voters," Urosevich said.
"Weren't they actually disenfranchised?" asked Tony Miller, chief counsel to the state's elections division.
After a moment, Urosevich agreed: "Yes, sir."
Flanked by most of California's local elections officials and advocates for the blind and speakers of minority languages, Diebold executives and attorneys pleaded for one more chance.
"There's still not any evidence of electronic voting systems anywhere in this country counting votes inaccurately," said Conny McCormack, the Los Angeles County registrar of voters.
But critics of electronic voting and Diebold said enough is enough.
Seattle journalist and BlackBoxVoting.org leader Bev Harris took a microphone two feet in front of Urosevich and said, "What we have is a company that lies. Yes, I'll say it -- lies."
"You have got to vote them off the island," said Jim March, a Sacramento lobbyist for the right to bear arms and see a paper ballot. March waved an especially harsh state report on Diebold's poor compliance with California election law.
"After this report, doubts will always remain not only about their credibility but their sanity," he said.
California elections regulators expect to make a recommendation today to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley on whether to disallow or "decertify" some or all of Diebold's voting machines -- or electronic voting altogether -- for the November election.
State officials and other voting-industry experts said they expect California's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel, at a minimum, to decertify Diebold's latest TSx touchscreen voting system, purchased by four counties for more than $40 million.
Such a move would send San Diego, Solano, San Joaquin and Kern counties scrambling for a new voting system, and it would mark a first: No other state has decertified a modern, electronic-voting machine since the race to embrace e-voting after Florida's chad-filled difficulties of 2000.
If limited to the TSx, California's decertification could have minimal impact on other states, none of which have certified the machine. The exception is Ohio, which is eyeing the machine for the November election in the home state of Diebold Elections' corporate parent.
But California officials were warned Wednesday that a more sweeping move to decertify all touchscreens could snatch away the newly acquired rights of blind and non-English-speaking voters to private votes, without assistance, and trigger similar acts elsewhere in the country.
"You're going to cause chaos throughout this nation as this begins to move and begins to spread," warned Austin Erdman, assistant registrar of voters in San Joaquin County.
Fourteen California counties where 43 percent of the state's voters use touchscreen machines would have to switch to their backup, optical scanning systems, which use a paper ballot. Advocates for minority-language speakers and the blind said those systems would force them again to rely on others for assistance in marking their ballots.
"We would do well to remember the lesson that separate is not equal. Going back to optical scan is tantamount to segregation," said Kathay Feng, an attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
But critics of e-voting said there is no tradeoff between disabled or multi-language capability and secure, stable voting. Another vendor, ES&S, offers an audio ballot-marking system for optical-scan ballots, for example.
State elections officials hinted they were leaning toward some form of decertification in two reports that took a critical first look at the nation's largest roll-out of electronic voting in a presidential primary and Diebold's actions beforehand.
In one report on the March 2 primary, elections analysts and consultants for Shelley's office found "numerous problems and concerns" that suggested that touchscreen voting "may not yet be stable, reliable and secure enough to use in the absence of an accessible, voter-verified, paper audit trail."
Currently, electronic machines offer no independent vote record to recount, rendering recounts useless.
Weeks after Diebold Election Systems Inc. vowed a "new day" of operating excellence in California, the nation's second-largest voting-systems firm asked state approval for 10 mostly untested changes to its voting software.
Its latest requests were less than a month before the Super Tuesday presidential primary, prompting state officials to demand a backup voting plan for four counties where Diebold had installed its untested, unapproved TSx voting system, sold for $40 million the previous summer.
Undersecretary of State Mark Kyle blasted Urosevich, Diebold president, over Diebold's two-page proposal for more than a million hand-counted paper ballots.
"It is apparent from your responses that no such backup plan has been created and that you continue to 'fly by the seat of your pants,'" Kyle wrote on Feb. 8. "In view of the chaos your company has caused, we expected that your company would 'step up to the plate' with an aggressive backup plan. Your failure to do so raises grave questions about your suitability as a voting systems vendor."
Diebold offered explanations for at least some of the last-minute software changes. Its executives said they were caught between the slow, federal transition to new 2002 voting-system testing and California's desire to approve the hardware and software counting its votes.
State elections officials were dismayed to find that Diebold had sold and installed thousands of its new TSx machines in the state without getting them tested, nationally qualified and even before applying for state certification.
I understand your frustration, said Diebold chief developer Tab Iredell. Why did we sell something that we didn't think we could run? Our understanding based on past experience was we thought we could get that certified.
Contact Ian Hoffman at email@example.com