Tech Firm Shows Off Glitch-Free Software

A technician puts random voters into the unit during Diebold Elections System's demonstration.
A technician puts random voters into the unit during Diebold Elections System's demonstration. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The manufacturer of Maryland's new electronic voter registration machines said yesterday that technicians have fixed the software glitch that caused machines in every precinct to freeze and reboot during the Sept. 12 primary election but acknowledged that two other flaws remain undiagnosed.

Diebold Election Systems officials yesterday demonstrated an improved version of the software for the machines, known as "e-poll books." A company executive also said Maryland is the first jurisdiction to use the latest model of the device.

Diebold's Maryland project manager, Tom Feehan, said the company was still researching why some units failed to communicate properly with one another and why some access cards, which voters receive after checking in and must insert into a voting machine, "did not encode."

Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections, invited Diebold to show that the system is "100 percent perfect."

To do that yesterday, Diebold technicians showed what happened to an unmodified e-poll book after 40 to 50 voters had registered: An error message appeared on the screen, displaying the words "can not continue;" the screen went black; and the unit rebooted, as if a polling judge had just turned it on.

Then, Diebold technician Euel Kirk Cowal began registering voters on a unit with the modified software. Cowal reached 138 voters without a freeze. The Diebold executives, including one from the company's Texas headquarters and another from a subsidiary in California, looked relieved.

Lamone, who has long championed the company and its voting machines, said she was not disappointed in Diebold. "I love the technology. I'm disappointed we had the problems, but I'm heartened to see Diebold stepping up to the plate to come up with solutions," she said.

"If it doesn't work," she added, referring to the e-poll books, "we're going to pack them up and ship them back."

She and Diebold officials noted that the e-poll book is separate from Diebold's voting machines, which they said worked well.

Feehan said each of the state's 5,500 e-poll books would have to be reprogrammed to correct the problem. He said the company had failed to find the glitch before the primary in part because time was short.

Maryland officials and Diebold executives are trying to rebuild public confidence after the disastrous primary day. A combination of human and technological failures plagued precincts across the state, particularly in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore.

Yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate for governor, wrote Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to suggest a joint effort to recruit Republicans to work as judges on election day. O'Malley cited news reports indicating that some problems arose from a lack of Republican judges.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell said the governor wrote to 70,000 state employees Friday, asking them to volunteer at the polls. "He appreciates the mayor bringing up the rear," Fawell said.

Ross Underwood, general manager of the Diebold unit responsible for the e-poll books, said that between 20 and 40 Maryland precincts reported that the units failed to synchronize information showing that a voter had registered at the polls. Feehan said the machine's failure to encode access cards had occurred in a "handful" of cases.

Maryland deployed the e-poll book technology for the first time on primary day. Underwood said that other jurisdictions have used earlier versions of the e-poll book, but that Maryland was the first to use Diebold's newest model of the machine.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company