Angst in Ohio about Bain, Romney donors links to voting machine company

October 23, 2012

Hart InterCivic is an Austin-based voting machine company that serves local governments all over the country. Its clients include Hamilton County, Ohio, which administers elections in Cincinnati. Hart InterCivic also has in its DNA just enough traces of Bain and Co. and Romney campaign donors to trigger serious angst in the liberal blogosphere about the fate of Ohio's must-have 18 electoral votes.

Versions of the story have appeared in The Free Press, an Ohio Web site, in addition to Salon and in a liberal blog carried by Forbes. In a nutshell: three of Hart's five corporate board members are executives of HIG Capital, a global private equity firm that made what it called a "significant" investment in Hart last year. Four HIG executives  (Tony Tamer, John Bolduc, Douglas Berman and Brian D. Schwartz) have been identified as Romney bundlers by independent watchdog groups such as the Sunlight Foundation.  HIG employees as a whole have donated $338,000 to the Romney campaign this year, according to Open Secrets. Three of them (Tamer, Berman and Bolduc) used to work at Bain. Among the investors in HIG is Solamere, the private equity firm run by Tagg Romney, the candidate's son.

The implication is that through these links Romney will enjoy some kind of malign leverage over the vote count in Ohio. For the moment, at least, the Hart story is only some intriguingly connected dots.

Through a spokesman, HIG declined to comment, although it has told other publications that Solamere's investment is not part of the firm's stake in Hart. In a statement, Hart InterCivic cited its "long track record of supporting a fair and open Democratic process. Any suggestions that the company might try to influence the outcome of election results is unfounded."

The Romney connections kindle bitter memories of 2004, when Walden O'Dell, chief executive of Diebold, the Ohio-based voting machine manufacturer, wrote a fundraising letter declaring his commitment to helping deliver the state to George W. Bush. When machine malfunctions and shortages caused long lines and exit polling showed Democrat John Kerry ahead, there were allegations of a stolen election. But Bush won the state by more than 100,000 votes, and the evidence never held up under close scrutiny. Diebold has since sold its election machine division to ES&S, which does business in the state.

Hart's footprint in Ohio is pretty modest. While Hamilton, the state's third most populous county (833,000), is a critical spot--Obama carried it in 2008--the only other jurisdiction that uses Hart products is tiny Williams County (39,000) in the rural northwest corner of the state.

The Hart system comes with two options: a paper ballot that is electronically scanned, and a digital "eSlate" device with a push button control. Hamilton County director of elections Amy Searcy said Tuesday that officials purchased the system five years ago and that Hart is not involved with its operations or maintenance.

"We own our equipment, we own the software, we have a bi-partisan team on staff that does all the pre-testing, all the diagnostic maintenance, ballot preparation and vote tabulation," Searcy said. "Hart has nothing to do with it."

She said Hart has performed without serious incident. But the company has come in for criticism. A 2007 study commissioned by then-Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner looked at the security of several voting systems used by localities, including Hart, and found them all wanting to some extent.

"The mechanisms that Hart uses to protect data and software is frequently based on absent or flawed security models," researchers concluded. A Hart spokesman said the criticisms were overstated.

There are at least four Virginia jurisdictions that use Hart: the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Charlottesville and Chesapeake. Falls Church registrar David Bjerke said Tuesday he was aware of the discussion surrounding Hart, but that he regarded the system as completely secure. "There's no way for the count to be manipulated," he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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Philip Rucker | October 23, 2012