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  • SOS report: Numerous ‘deficiencies’ in elections software  –

Posted: 03/05/2009 01:31:44 AM PST

Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard

The elections system software error that dropped almost 200 ballots from Humboldt County’s final November elections results is only one of a number of problems with the system, according to a recently released report from Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s offic.

In addition to the programming error, the report found three “deficiencies” in the system’s audit logs that place incorrect data-entry time stamps in the logs, allow operators to delete decks of ballots without a paper trail and even allow system operators to, intentionally or inadvertently, erase the system’s audit logs.

Discovery of any of the deficiencies could have warranted the system’s failing of independent testing, according to the report.

Bowen has called a March 17 public hearing to consider withdrawing the state’s approval of the particular version of the Premier Elections Solutions software in question, GEMS version 1.18.19. The integrity of that antiquated version of the software, which is used in Humboldt to tabulate the county’s total vote counts, first came into question when a discrepancy arose with the county’s final vote tallies for the November presidential election.

The software error reportedly first came to Bowen’s attention after Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich informed her office that the first-of-its-kind Humboldt County Election Transparency Project found that 197 vote-by-mail ballots, which had been scanned through vote counting machines, mysteriously disappeared from the final ballot tally as tabulated by the GEMS software.

The problem was traced to a programing error with the specific version of the software used in Humboldt — a programing error that sometimes results in the first deck of ballots scanned through the vote counting machine, known as “Deck 0,” vanishing without a trace from the final results.

Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Elections Solutions, said the company became aware of the error in 2004 and issued “work around” orders to its customers instructing them how to take steps to avoid the problem.

In two other counties using the same software — San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara — elections officials included the “work around” orders into their written Election Day procedures. In Humboldt County, then Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams said he received the e-mail, but failed to pass the information along to his boss at the time, or his successor, Kelly Sanders.

That point seems lost in Bowen’s report, said Riggall, who was also careful to say that Premier agrees the particular version of GEMS in question should no longer be used.

”I think it’s fair, from our perspective, to say that the report editorializes in a number of ways that don’t reflect the sort of even-handedness that one would like to see,” Riggall said, adding that he sees the software error simply as a “contributing factor” to Humboldt County’s inaccurate election results. “To say it caused it and to solely attribute that discrepancy to the software is, in our judgment, not accurate and not objective.”

Riggall contends that McWilliams obviously should have ensured his successors knew of the “work around” procedures and that elections staff should have realized earlier on that a discrepancy existed between the number of physical ballots scanned and the vote totals.

According to Bowen’s report, Crnich’s staff twice checked the number of physical ballots against the vote totals — once on the day the vote-by-mail ballots were scanned and again on Election Day — and that the ballots in question didn’t disappear until days later.

Bowen’s report also highlights what it deems as three “deficiencies” with the system’s audit logs. First, the report says that the logs fail to include important actions, including when a deck of ballots is deleted from the tallies. While administering the November election, Humboldt County elections officials deleted 26 decks of ballots from the tallies, according to the report. But, none of the deletions were recorded on the audit logs.

This issue also existed in subsequent versions of GEMS software, Riggall said, but has been resolved in the latest version, which has not been certified for use in California.

Additionally, the report states that some of the actions that were recorded in the audit logs were given inaccurate date stamps. For example, the report states that a status report for a deck of ballots entered into the system on Nov. 3 carried the date stamp Nov. 25.

Finally, the report found that the audit logs also contain a function allowing elections administrators to irrevocably delete the log, either intentionally or inadvertently. Riggall said this function was removed from subsequent versions of the software, but the report notes it is still present in the version of the software used in Humboldt, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

In fact, the report states that one California elections official, while trying to print an audit log to fulfill a public records request, inadvertently and irrevocably deleted the log instead.

Crnich said she’s pleased with Bowen’s report.

”I think it’s pretty thorough and accurate,” she said. “That is what happened here.”

With the state having called a May 19 special election, Crnich said her office will have to conduct one more election on the system it now knows to be flawed, but said the system will not be used in November. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors has already approved a tentative plan for Crnich’s office to switch voting equipment, but Crnich said funding for the new equipment has to be secured.

While the discrepancy in Humboldt County’s final November tallies did not impact the outcome of any race or ballot measure, Bowen’s report cautions that it could have been much worse.

”The loss of votes could have been greater; it’s magnitude was limited only by the number of ballots the county elections official had chosen to scan as part of Deck 0,” it states.

PDF of the Secretary of State’s report