Eyebrows Raised Over Voting Decisions | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Eyebrows Raised Over Voting Decisions

The Mississippi Secretary of State's office announced June 29 that it had made its selection on the vendor to supply the state's voting machines for the 2006 elections: Diebold Election Systems.

"These voting machines will greatly improve the accuracy and integrity of every election in Mississippi," said Secretary of State Eric Clark in a statement. "They are easy to use and are secure. Of all the machines we studied, they were the most 'user-friendly' and came at the lowest price. This purchase is another major step in making historic improvements to the elections process in our state."

A committee led by Clark and involving local election officials and representatives of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services (ITS) unanimously approved the $15 million purchase from Diebold. The purchase is 95 percent funded by federal money appropriated under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 and 5 percent state matching funds.

The decision marks another footstep in a plan begun in 2004 to clean up the state's voter rolls and simplify the voting process. Clark's offices then began taking proposals from potential computer companies to build and maintain the first centralized statewide computer voter database. Estimates to build and maintain that system hovered at $10 million, with 95 percent of funding also provided on a federal level. The act allows states to replace outdated punch-card voting systems, establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections, and devise minimum election administration standards for states and local government.

Viewed With Suspicion

The state has since handed the $7.8 million HAVA-compliant Statewide Election Management System contract to Saber Consulting, which includes Saber's Electus software, implementation services, third-party hardware and software, and maintenance services.

Diebold beat out the other two final candidates under consideration for supplying the state's voting machines. The other two were ES&S and the Hart InterCivic, of Texas. Some voters were leery of all three candidates, however, Diebold included.

"I think that these companies, all of whom have executives who have contributed heavily to Republican campaigns, need to be viewed with suspicion," said Keelan Sanders, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party.

In August 2003, Diebold Inc. CEO Walden O'Dell said in a fund-raising letter that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Bush carried the election in Ohio, despite exit polls predicting otherwise.

"This part of our democracy should be as independent of special interests and big money as possible, but clearly it's not, and I think the electronic voting systems are suspect because of it," said Kevin Connor, an analyst with the Public Accountability Initiative, which has released numerous reports on conflict of interest issues in voting (available at http://www.publicaccountability.org)

Diebold routinely works in the realms of touch-screen technology. Problems outlined with earlier touch-screen methods include the lack of a paper trail and susceptibility to computer hacking using simple Bluetooth Technology—available on many medium to high-end laptop computers sold after 2004.

Diebold representative Buck Jones called the TSX system adopted by Mississippi "hack-proof."

"It uses no wireless technology whatsoever. It's not connected to the Internet or a phone line. Every system in a polling place is stand-alone and independent," Jones said. "When your ballot's cast, it's recorded in multiple places within the voting unit. One of them is a removable PC card. There's also a printer built into the device, so it will print a zero-tape in the morning and a tally tape in the evening."

Why Not a Paper Trail?

The tally tape is not an independent paper trail in itself. Secretary of State public information officer David Blount the Diebold system is the "most accurate" and said his office is working on establishing a "voter verified" paper trail to allow voters to see a paper print-out of their selections in each race before casting their ballots, if HAVA is fully funded in the next federal budget. Clark's office said the cost of adding the paper trail devices would cost the state between $1.5 million and $2 million.

Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist at Washington government watchdog group Public Citizen, emphasized the importance of the paper trail and the reputation of Diebold, warning that the secretary of state should be mindful of distrust among voters acting as a deterrent at the polls.

"If the secretary of state is serious about trying to modernize the voting technology, he should be particularly sensitive to any potential conflict of interest and any association with these companies to any particular party or candidates. Voters are very worried these days about the integrity of their ballots, and if voting procedures are widely perceived as being rigged you can bet that a lot of people are going to be chased away from exercising their vote," Holman said adding that "no computer is hack-proof," especially from members of the company that made it.

"I applaud Diebold for trying to turn its machines over to local elections officials as much as it can, but these local elections officials are not the ones who make these machines, so Diebold company executives have to work with these machines. They have to set them up and get them going before the elections," Holman said, explaining that any tampering could take place prior to the election.

Jones insists that local election officials of both political parties will be "looking over the shoulder" of Diebold personnel during initial implementation.

Beyond Quid Pro Quo

The state's selection of Saber Consulting, Inc. in late 2004 might also raise conflict-of-interest concerns. A former employee of the Secretary of State's office recently left the secretary's office for a career with Saber Consulting, months after the vendor was chosen to handle Mississippi's voter rolls.

Tupelo Elections Commissioner John Wages said the move, though not illegal, certainly looked suspicious.

"In my view when a person works for the government, knows the inside score and they leave to go work for a company, sure it may be legal, but it certainly looks inappropriate," said Wages. "I worked for private companies in the past, and one of the things they always told us as part of our employment agreement is when you leave the company you can not make use of the contacts that you've made there. If I work for Company A and have a Rolodex of information, I'm not supposed to take that with me. If you make all these contacts, you know the inside score in government—which benefits the many—and you take that information and you go and use it for a private company—which benefits the few—there really is a difference. Businesses operate by strict rules to protect themselves. I think the government should have strict rules also."

Former elections administration director Michael Boyd, who now works for Saber Consulting Inc., in Maryland, said he was indeed a member of the scoring team that helped draft the specifications for the software contract that Saber won. As a member of the scoring team, Boyd was also one of the individuals serving as an adviser to Clark, relating preferences to the secretary of state for use in the final selection.

Boyd said he felt there was no conflict of interest involved, however.

"I sent a letter over to the state Ethics Commission asking whether there was a conflict of interest or not. … The reason I asked the Ethics Commission was to make sure that I wasn't violating any laws and there wasn't any conflict of interest. That was foremost one of my biggest concerns. I would not do anything that would jeopardize my reputation nor that of anyone I work for," Boyd said. "Saber had this opportunity in Maryland, and it's a wonderful company, and I think I made the right decision for me and my family," Boyd said.

A summary of an opinion issued by the Mississippi Ethics Commission regarding Boyd's written request states that "a former state employee may work for a state vendor in another state so long as his work for the vendor is not directly related to the state vendor's Mississippi contract," effectively clearing Boyd of suspicion on one front, since Boyd assures that he will have no interaction with Saber's work in Mississippi.

Giving a company prior preference in exchange for employment at the company, however, would be a violation of a different section of the ethics law: The Use of Office Section [25-4-105 (1)], which states that an official may not use their position in government to obtain a monetary benefit for themselves, a close relative or their business. But the Ethics Commission said it did not take the Use of Office Law under consideration in responding to Boyd's request, because evidence of abuse of power was not submitted.

"I wouldn't have enough facts to say whether or not I saw a conflict of interest," said Ethics Commission Director Scott Rankin. "Just to perform that service and then later go to work for that company, in my personal opinion, that would not be enough to violate 105-1. You'd have to show that they didn't hire him for his expertise but because of some quid pro-quo."

Holman called the Ethics Commission's decision "reprehensible."

"That completely contradicts what ethics rules are all about," Holman said. "Ethics rules go beyond quid pro quo. Quid pro quo is bribery. That's illegal no matter what and that's up to the Department of Justice (to decide). Where the ethics rules step in is they recognize that to prove quid pro quo you have to have an FBI sting operation and that's just too difficult, so ethics rules are set up to avoid the appearance of corruption rather than actually proving quid pro quo, and the appearance of corruption is if someone is negotiating employment with a company at the same time providing a government contract to that same company. That is a violation of ethics rules. You don't have to prove quid pro quo. That's a violation of ethics."

Boyd argues, however, that he was not considering employment at Saber in the months leading up to the company's selection.

"I want to make sure that I've conducted my activities in an ethical manner," Boyd said. "I talked to Eric Clark before I accepted it. He was comfortable with the decision, that there was nothing illegal or improper going on."

Dr. Iren Omo-Bare, associate professor of political science at Millsaps College, lamented that the business community and the U.S. politics arena often held hands a little too tightly, and that it has been this way a very long time.

"(The Michael Boyd issue) sounds like a conflict of interest, but it's a common practice in American politics. That's always been the way in this country," said Omo-Bare.

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Diebold's Political Machine 'In recent years, central Ohio has been transformed from a bastion of Republicanism into a Democratic stronghold. Six of Columbus' seven city council members are Democrats, as is the city's mayor, Michael Coleman. But no Democrat has been elected to Congress from central Ohio in more than 20 years, and the area around Columbus still includes pockets where no Democrat stands a chance. One such Republican pocket is Upper Arlington, the Columbus suburb that is home to Walden "Wally" O'Dell, the chairman of the board and chief executive of Diebold. For years, O'Dell has given generously to Republican candidates. Last September, he held a packed $1,000-per-head GOP fundraiser at his 10,800-square-foot mansion. He has been feted as a guest at President Bush's Texas ranch, joining a cadre of "Pioneers and Rangers" who have pledged to raise more than $100,000 for the Bush reelection campaign. Most memorably, O'Dell last fall penned a letter pledging his commitment "to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President." O'Dell has defended his actions, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer "I'm not doing anything wrong or complicated." But he also promised to lower his political profile and "try to be more sensitive." But the Diebold boss' partisan cards are squarely on the table. And, when it comes to the Diebold board room, O'Dell is hardly alone in his generous support of the GOP. One of the longest-serving Diebold directors is W.R. "Tim" Timken. Like O'Dell, Timken is a Republican loyalist and a major contributor to GOP candidates. Since 1991 the Timken Company and members of the Timken family have contributed more than a million dollars to the Republican Party and to GOP presidential candidates such as George W. Bush. Between 2000 and 2002 alone, Timken's Canton-based bearing and steel company gave more than $350,000 to Republican causes, while Timken himself gave more than $120,000. This year, he is one of George W. Bush's campaign Pioneers, and has already pulled in more than $350,000 for the president's reelection bid.'

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