Report: Premier/Diebold Voting Machines Deleted Ballots

This week, the State of California completed its investigation into why their electronic voting machines quietly deleted 197 ballots in the November 2008 election in Humboldt County. The loss was discovered only after discrepancies in the vote count were found by the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project, a local watchdog.

The investigation report (also: background docs) throws the blame solidly on junk software provided by Premier Election Systems, a company so widely ridiculed that it abandoned it old name, Diebold, in 2007.

The fundamental problem with the systems used in Humboldt County is that the software creates no permanent records of votes cast (i.e. paper receipts).

Instead everything is tossed in a database, which as this case ably demonstrates, is only as good as its software. When Premier/Diebold found a flaw that could lead to a user unknowingly erasing a stack of votes, they sent an ambiguous email warning to election officials… in 2004. They didn’t however, correct the software in the counties where it was deployed.

The problems don’t stop there. The investigation also noted that the Premier/Diebold software has, nestled between the “Print”, “Save As” and “Close” buttons, a button labeled “Clear”. This button deletes the permanent audit logs which record (in theory) everything that happens on the machine. There is no “Are you sure?” confirmation or notification of what has happened after the button is pressed. It just wipes out, with one stray click, the federally mandated log files. According to California’s report, a 2001 internal email discussing the addition of the button noted that “there are too many reasons why doing that is a bad idea.” They did it anyway.

The report concludes:

GEMS version 1.18.19 [the software running the election] contains a serious software error that caused the omission of 197 ballots from the official results… Key audit trail logs in GEMS version 1.18.19 do not record important operator interventions such as deletion of decks of ballots, assign inaccurate date and time stamps to events that are recorded, and can be deleted by the operator. The number of votes erroneously deleted from the election results reported by GEMS in this case greatly exceeds the maximum allowable error rate established by HAVA [Help America Vote Act of 2002].

It’s logging inaccurate dates? How sloppy is this product?

The Global Integrity Commons covered Premier/Diebold before the election, citing “serious doubts” on Premier/Diebold voting machines.

They aren’t doubts anymore: it’s public record that these things are zapping votes into the ether, and without attentive watchdog groups, there is no indication whatsoever that anything is amiss. How many times has this happened without getting noticed? What happens when someone wants to delete votes?

We can only hope that more states using these systems will follow California’s lead and hold public hearings on whether to decertify the Premier/Diebold systems in use.

I’ll say it again: if buying a medium nonfat latte merits a paper receipt, so does the ballot.

— Jonathan Eyler-Werve, reporting for the Global Integrity Commons