December 29, 2008 - Federal election commission eyes Humboldt
Paper: Times-Standard ( Eureka, CA)
Title: Federal election commission eyes Humboldt
Date: December 29, 2008
Author: Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, but the federal Elections Assistance Commission's eyes are firmly fixed on Humboldt.
The commission chairwoman, Rosemary Rodriguez, said she received a letter from North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, early this month alerting the commission that Humboldt County had certified inaccurate elections results due to a programming error in its version of Premier Elections Solutions software that led to almost 200 votes being dropped from the county's final results.
”(Thompson) definitely asked the EAC to follow up on this information and to try to work to support California's elections officials in their attempts to get to the bottom of this and resolve this matter,” Rodriguez said.
But, unlike the Federal Aviation Administration, Rodriguez said the EAC doesn't have the authority or capacity to launch independent investigations. So, Rodriguez said her commission is currently awaiting reports from Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen detailing the error and how it was discovered.
The commission, Rodriguez said, will then use the reports in two ways in an attempt to ensure these types of errors don't pop up again: It will pass them along to the federal elections systems testing laboratories so it can test for precisely these types of problems; and it will widely disseminate the information so every election official using the same type of software is aware of the problem and how to work around it.
Just days after the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors certified the November election results, the first- of -its-kind Humboldt County Election Transparency Project uncovered the fact that 197 vote-by-mail ballots, which had been scanned through vote counting machines, were mysteriously deleted 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 -- 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 simply issued “work-around” orders to its customers instructing them how to take steps to avoid the problem.
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.
It seems like both the EAC's courses of action outlined by Rodriguez, if taken years ago, could have prevented Humboldt County's current headache.
The version of Premier's error-prone GEMS vote-counting software used in Humboldt County's November election went through Bowen's 2006 top-to-bottom review of California's elections systems, but the review did not pick up the programming error, which Bowen's office has said didn't come to its attention until the almost 200 Humboldt County votes disappeared.
If Bowen's team had known to look for this type of problem, it's possible the error would have turned up during the testing process and that the software never would have been certified. Making sure testing laboratories look specifically for this type of programming error will make them much less likely to slip through cracks in the certification process, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the fact that the EAC will disseminate the contents of the Humboldt County report to elections officials from coast to coast will also prevent similar problems from occurring elsewhere.
Evidently, part of what hit Humboldt County on Election Day was a breakdown in communication. Rodriguez said the EAC's new certification process will require manufacturers to notify it of any problems with their systems, so that the EAC can make sure that information gets to all elections officials, from secretaries of states to local elections managers.
One of the issues the error in Humboldt County has raised, Rodriguez acknowledged, is whether similar problems may have occurred elsewhere but gone unreported, simply having been dealt with between the vendor and the local elections officials where the problem occurred.
”I think that's an appropriate concern,” Rodriguez said. “There's this very confidential relationship between counties and vendors, and I think issues have been resolved as they've arisen with these kinds of work-arounds, but who knew. The voters certainly didn't know, and elections officials aren't going to necessarily want their voters to know there are problems. So, it's resulted in this kind of unhealthy situation.”
Because of that, Rodriguez said she's proud of Humboldt County, and especially of Crnich, for stepping forward and acknowledging there was a problem.
”The fact that they're sharing this information is a gift, I think, for other counties,” Rodriguez said. “We're all learning together and Humboldt County is really going to help us in that process... I really commend the county for engaging in this transparency project, and Secretary Bowen certainly has established the appropriate climate of scrutiny, and I just think there's lots of good that comes from this very unfortunate situation. Votes aren't to be trifled with.”
Section: News Local
Record Number: 11328669
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