Sunday, May 9, 2004

Diebold finds voting machine venture stormy

By M.R. Kropko
The Associated Press

NORTH CANTON, Ohio - After the Florida punch-card debacle hurt the credibility of the last presidential election, ATM maker Diebold Inc. decided it should expand into electronic voting.

"In November of 2000, I was embarrassed for this country," said Walden W. O'Dell, Diebold's chairman and chief executive.

The Florida fiasco also inspired Congress, which appropriated $3.9 billion for an overhaul of the nation's voting systems - one that was to be fueled by technology promised by the likes of Diebold.

But Diebold has yet to realize large rewards for its shift into electronic voting.

Instead, it has reaped a storm of criticism and a call for a criminal investigation by California's top election official, who banned the company's newest touchscreen voting computers April 30, citing security and reliability concerns.

The Diebold ballot appears on a portable screen that voters touch and confirm, and votes are stored on memory cards. But because the machines do not produce a paper record for each vote, critics say proper recounts are impossible.

Computer security experts say the Diebold machines - and those of rivals - have been carelessly developed and are too vulnerable to tampering and malfunction. Other critics have questioned the close ties that O'Dell and other company executives have with Republicans.

The onslaught has slowed sales and forced the company to lower financial expectations for Diebold Election Systems, the subsidiary that makes the touchscreens.

North Canton-based Diebold supplied 55,600 touchscreen voting stations for the March 2 "Super Tuesday" primaries, mostly in Maryland, Georgia and California.

Diebold's e-voting system was first stung by criticism last year when a hacker managed to obtain the company's software source code, along with e-mails and other documents.

And during the primaries, vote counts in Maryland were delayed because of modem glitches, and machines in much of California's San Diego County malfunctioned, potentially disenfranchising hundreds of voters.

Diebold says the security concerns are unfounded and blames human and mechanical errors.

Detractors are also taking aim at Diebold's political preferences.

Diebold or people affiliated with the company made more than $325,000 in contributions since 2000, mainly to President Bush or Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, according to the independent Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

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