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The Tampa Bay Times

Pinellas relies heavily on Sequoia to keep its voting system running.

November 9, 2006

On Tuesday night, the Pinellas elections office needed eight private contractors to provide support for its electronic voting system.

For the primary election, the number was 13.

The dependence on outside contractors concerns voting integrity activists, who argue that election officials around the country have ceded control of the ballot box to private companies that are too free of public oversight.

"Very few people understand that ... the mechanics of the elections are being handled by a private entity," said Warren Stewart, policy director of the national advocacy group Vote TrustUSA. ...

Pinellas is a hot spot for the debate.

The Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office uses machines and software from Sequoia Voting Systems. For every election the county has held since agreeing to spend nearly $14-million in 2001 to buy the system, Sequoia employees have had to lend a hand.

A Sequoia worker, for instance, toiled for three weeks to code the system to tally ballots before the September primary. Just before that election, another Sequoia specialist's attempted computer upgrade caused the system to fail a test run.

And on Tuesday night, when three voting machines had trouble, a Sequoia employee advised officials how to extract results and put them back into the system by hand.


In Palm Beach County, officials said no Sequoia employees were present. In Indian River, officials said they used only one Sequoia worker; another came by to try to fix two malfunctioning optical scan machines.

In Hillsborough County's elections office, systems administrator Chuck Smith said a Sequoia representative was on hand. ... But ... Hillsborough election workers took the lead role.

Pinellas' Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark did not respond to questions for this story, but in a statement through a spokeswoman she stressed that Sequoia technicians don't make independent decisions about county voting equipment or elections and are overseen by her employees.

That answer contradicts comments Clark made in September when the Sequoia system failed the test before the primary. A Sequoia employee's last-minute tweak to a tabulating database was blamed.

"I don't know why they thought it was necessary," Clark said of Sequoia at the time. "They assured us it would not compromise the database at all."

The reliance on so many Sequoia workers can be blamed, in part, on the loss of the office's technology director, Jim Armstrong, ... an employee had been promoted to fill Armstrong's place, but Sequoia was stretched too thin to give him needed training ...

The reliance on Sequoia workers could prove costly. The company charged the county $108,000 for the primary election, which Clark's office is contesting.

The bill has not come due for the work Sequoia did for Tuesday's election. For many of the elections since 2002, Sequoia has charged between $1,000 and $4,000.

Sequoia made national headlines two weeks ago when it was reported that federal officials announced they were investigating possible links between Sequoia's parent company and the government of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, a critic of the U.S.

Stewart of Vote TrustUSA thought it highly unlikely that the Venezuelan government was using Sequoia to manipulate U.S. elections, but said the lack of transparency by companies that sell voting equipment contributes to such suspicions.

In Florida, only state regulators have access to the inner workings of the voting systems that vendors sell. Companies like Sequoia consider such information a trade secret, ...


Local election officials get user manuals for the computer voting systems they operate on election day, Ivey said.

Douglas Jones is a computer scientist at the University of Iowa with a national reputation in the debate over voting technology. For a decade, he sat on the Iowa board that certified the state's voting equipment.

When a government hires a private contractor to build a road, Jones pointed out, it makes sure to have its own engineers on site. But when a state like Florida shields a voting machine company's trade secrets from view, such oversight becomes impossible, he said.

"We hire the election system vendor to run the elections," Jones said. "And we don't have anyone locally with the knowledge to oversee the process."

Times staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report.

© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • St. Petersburg Times