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Around the States

Maryland Election Official Endorses Diebold Machines in Marketing Literature PDF  | Print |  Email
By Kim Zetter   
June 26, 2007

This article was posted on the Wired Threat Level Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

 

Maryland's Board of Elections Administrator, Linda Lamone, is featured in a sales brochure for Diebold Election Systems praising the company's new ExpressPoll-5000 electronic pollbook.

 

"Our election judges just love this product, and so do I. We in Maryland are extremely pleased with the performance of the system during the general election," reads Lamone's quote next to a photo of her smiling and sitting, presumably, in a state election office.

 

Aside from the fact that some voters (and the Maryland State Ethics Commission) might take issue with the idea of a state election official appearing in sales literature to promote a specific voting machine company's product, there's one other detail that stands out about Lamone's endorsement (at right) -- the e-pollbooks she's promoting in the brochure experienced large-scale failure during Maryland's inaugural use of them in the September primary last year. More specifically, the Diebold e-pollbooks used in precincts across the state crashed repeatedly during the election causing long delays in voting at some precincts.

 
The ExpressPoll is a new Diebold product, separate from Diebold's voting machines, for verifying that voters are in the voter-registration database and thus elligible to vote. It's also used to encode a smartcard that voters place in a Diebold voting machine to cast their ballot.

 

Until Maryland paid Diebold $18.4 million for 5,000 of the e-pollbooks last year, poll workers manually checked a voter's name against an alphabetized printout of the voter registration database. With the Diebold system, the county or state voter-registration roll is downloaded to the devices before an election; then when voters arrive at a precinct poll workers type in the first three letters of a voter's name to see if he or she is registered. E-pollbooks at each precinct are synched to one another so that when a voter is signed in using one e-pollbook, the information is shared with other e-pollbooks at the precinct.

 

Maryland used the devices in its September primary and November General Election. And, according to Diebold's literature, the system "resulted in faster voter turnaround" in Maryland and "yielded immediate tangible benefits for both poll-workers and voters."

 

That may have been true in November, but as Johns Hopkins computer scientist Avi Rubin relayed on his blog, that wasn't the case in September.

Rubin worked as a poll worker during the primary. He, and poll workers in precincts across the state, reported that e-pollbooks were crashing and rebooting about every 20 minutes -- or after every 40th voter -- while encoding a voter's smartcard. It generally took a pollbook 3 minutes to reboot, Rubin reported, and once it did, it often indicated erroneously that the voter whose smartcard was in the machine when it crashed, had already voted. The machines also had synchronization problems so that information entered in one machine didn't update to other e-pollbooks. Even when the devices weren't crashing, some of them simply failed to encode smartcards.

Maryland wasn't the only state to experience problems. Georgia, the first state to use the ExpressPoll statewide reported synching problems (pdf -- begin reading from p. 9) during its July primary. Diebold has said the problems in Maryland were related to coding and hardware design issues and fixed them before the November election. But a Maryland election judge wrote me that machines in at least one precinct continued to crash in November if a poll worker typed in the last name of a voter that began with the letters "Cur."

Lamone has drawn harsh criticism in the past for supporting Diebold and maintaining that its touch-screen voting machines are secure and reliable, despite the findings of a report commissioned by her own state showing that the machines had a number of security vulnerabilities

 

But the question remains, aside from the fact that the machines Lamone is endorsing weren't as problem-free as her endorsement suggests, is Lamone doing anything illegal or unethical by appearing in the Diebold literature?

 

Although it's common practice in the business world for a company to include the testimonials of happy clients in the company's marketing literature, Robert Hahn, general counsel for Maryland's State Ethics Commission, says "the way the private sector does business is not necessarily the way the public sector does business." Impartiality in carrying out duties, he says, is a factor in how the public views whether a state agency is "acting in a fair and responsible manner." Therefore maintaining that impartiality is important for public confidence. Hahn wouldn't comment on whether he felt Lamone's actions violated that public trust but pointed Wired News to a section of the state's ethics law that prohibits the misuse of a state office for the benefit of a state employee or a third party, such as a vendor.

 

Section 15-506 of the law regarding "Use of prestige of office" reads:

(a) In general. -- An official or employee may not intentionally use the prestige of office or public position for that official's or employee's private gain or that of another."
"A vendor can list as part of its resume the fact that it had different government jobs," says Hahn. "But we would probably frown on a state employee saying 'ABC is the best company in the world because they helped us'. That would be viewed as being inappropriate for government officials."
 

He added that while there was no problem with a state official responding to inquiries from officials at other government agencies asking for recommendations or comments about vendors they used, "But to have the face of a state official in an advertisement, we would say no to (that)."

 

Attempts to reach Lamone for comment were unsuccessful. A staff member at the Board of Elections said Lamone was out of the office yesterday and wouldn't let me leave a voicemail message for her. Instead she transferred me to another worker, who said that Lamone is unable to access her voicemail whenever she is outside the office. Lamone did not respond today to a message I left with her office.

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