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Ohio Recount Stirs Trouble

02:00 AM Dec. 20, 2004 PT
By Kim Zetter

As a statewide election recount got underway in Ohio last week, a Democratic congressman called on the FBI to impound vote-tabulating computers in at least one county and investigate suspicions of election tampering in the state.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee, sought the investigation after an Ohio election official disclosed in an affidavit (.pdf) that an employee of Triad Governmental Systems, the company that wrote voting software used with punch-card machines in 41 of Ohio's 88 counties, dismantled Hocking County's tabulation computer days before the recount and "put a patch on it."

Conyers called the action "inappropriate and likely illegal election tampering." ... A public hearing in Ohio on Monday will determine if there is cause for an investigation.

But Sherole Eaton, a Democrat and the deputy director of elections for Hocking County who wrote the affidavit, said her words have been blown out of proportion. She doesn't think Triad tampered with the votes and is a little angry that the Green Party and others have spun her words to imply that they did.

Eaton's story came to light only when members of the Green Party contacted her before the recount to discuss the procedures and asked who had access to the counting software. When Eaton mentioned Triad's recent visit, the Green Party took the information to Conyers and presented it at an ad hoc Judicial Committee hearing in Ohio as evidence of possible vote tampering.

Eaton said that after the Green Party started spreading the information around, she decided to write the affidavit to get her account on record so that it would not be distorted or misinterpreted.

Doug Jones, Iowa's chief examiner of voting equipment and a computer scientist at the University of Iowa who has been a leading critic of electronic voting machines, said the matter was less likely a case of election tampering than poor election procedures and oversight. But he added that even if no one tampered with votes, the fact that someone had unsupervised access to tabulating equipment before the recount was a breach of security procedures and might even violate Ohio election law.

"The tabulating room should be viewed as a secure computer systems site where nobody goes in there unsupervised, but the affidavit suggests there was no supervision in the tabulating room," Jones said. He said that suspicions of tampering are just as destructive to the integrity of an election as actual tampering and laws prohibiting unsupervised access to voting equipment should be enforced.

According to Eaton's affidavit, Michael Barbian, a technician for Triad, called Eaton on Dec. 10 to say he'd be coming to the office to "check out" the elections computer before the recount Dec. 14. When he arrived to examine the machine, a 14-year-old Dell PC, the computer wouldn't boot up. Barbian told Eaton the computer's internal battery was dead and that "stored information" on it was "gone."

Barbian told Eaton he "could put a patch on" the computer and "proceeded to take the computer apart and call his office to get information" to put into the computer. When the computer was fixed, Barbian asked Eaton which precinct the county planned to hand-count, then returned to the tabulating room. When he came out again, he said the computer was ready and told them to reboot it once to reset the internal clock, then leave it on so the battery could recharge.

Voting activists have seized the detail about the "patch" and the precinct as proof that Barbian rigged the machine. Under Ohio's recount law, a county must first hand-count 3 percent of ballots and then run them through a machine count. If the hand tally matches the machine tally, the county can recount the remaining ballots by machine only. But if the hand and machine counts differ, the county must hand-count all ballots.

So activists say Barbian asked about the precinct so he could set the machine to record only those ballots correctly, while tampering with votes in other precincts.

Hocking completed its recount Wednesday, and the results differed from the certified results by only three votes. President Bush and Sen. John Kerry picked up an additional vote each when pregnant chads fell out of two ballots that had previously shown no vote in the presidential race. A second extra vote went to Kerry from a previously uncounted absentee ballot. Bush won Hocking County with 6,935 votes to John Kerry's 6,173.

In the end, the county hand-counted a different precinct from the one Eaton told Barbian it would count. The county changed the precinct after members of the Green Party expressed concern that Barbian knew which precinct was planned. The results of that precinct matched the original certified results.

Brett Rapp, president of Triad, said Barbian visited the Hocking County elections office before the recount because the state had mandated that only the presidential race would be recounted and Barbian had to set up the computer to count and report only that race on punch cards.

"All Ohio counties had to do that," Rapp said. "Not just ... counties (using Triad software)."

He said that ... the rechargeable battery on the motherboard had died, the computer had lost stored information about the hard drive's specifications ... . No other data on the machine was lost.

He said Barbian took the case off the computer to identify the hard drive's make and model.

"He called our office, told us the model and we obtained the hard drive parameters by looking them up on the internet," Rapp said. "... He installed no patches on the computer system. He did not tamper with it. He simply fixed a piece of equipment that was broken." He said that Eaton must have misheard Barbian say he was going to put a patch on the machine.

Rapp said that once Barbian fixed the computer, he tested all of the precincts and showed the election officials that the computer and tabulator were counting correctly. Then election officials ran their own test to make sure the machine was counting properly.

Rapp said he believed Barbian asked about the hand-counted precinct because he was trying to make sure the election officials, who had never conducted a recount before, understood what they were doing and which precinct they were going to count.

"He was trying to help them make sure the process went smoothly," Rapp said.

Eaton and Lisa Schwartze, director of elections for Hocking County, confirmed that they ran a test to make sure the machine was counting properly. But Eaton took issue with Rapp's assertion that she misheard Barbian say he mentioned placing a patch on the computer, ...

"I wouldn't just come up with that. I don't use that term or know what it means," she said. She added that Barbian used the same word with the 70-year-old chair of Hocking County's elections board, who she said also wouldn't have come up with the term on his own.

Still, she does not believe that Barbian tampered with the machine.

"I have had, and still do have, complete trust in Triad," Eaton said. Eaton, who is 65 and by her own admission not computer-savvy, did not understand much of what Barbian did, and said that when he asked if he could take apart the computer, he had to ask for a screwdriver from one of the office workers. "He brought no tools with him," Eaton told Wired News, "which indicates to me that he wasn't planning on working on the machines."

She also said that Barbian's office visit wasn't out of the ordinary since Triad "ran" the county's primary and general elections this year.

"A lot of the (election) boards hire the company that (makes) their program to come in on election night and do all of the computer work and run the tabulators and do that type of thing," Eaton said. "We pay them for that."

Voting activists have long criticized the practice of allowing voting company employees to run tabulation equipment during elections. Iowa's Doug Jones said the practice allows for the possibility of vote tampering and should be stopped.

"If access is being permitted that even allows for manipulation, that's a serious problem," Jones said. He said he hoped that the issue in Ohio will prompt legislators and election officials to re-examine the practice and strengthen laws that would control access to voting equipment.

To read all of Wired News' coverage of e-voting, visit our Machine Politics section.

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