By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006
The maker of Maryland's electronic voting system replaced a flawed electronic component in several thousand touch-screen voting machines in 2005, state election officials acknowledged this week.
To eliminate unpredictable "screen freezes" that have occurred since the machines were first used in Maryland in 2002, Diebold Election Systems installed new system boards in about 4,700 voting machines from four Maryland counties: Allegany, Dorchester, Montgomery and Prince George's.
The screen freezes do not cause votes to be lost, officials said, but they confuse voters and election judges who sometimes wonder whether votes cast on a frozen machine will be counted.
The acknowledgment of the repairs came in response to queries from The Washington Post and sheds further light on Maryland's troubled transition to electronic voting. Critics said it raises concerns about whether the state and company officials have kept the public adequately informed about problems with a system that cost taxpayers $106 million.
State officials said this week that they learned after the November 2004 election that a flawed system board was the source of the screen-freeze problem. But documents show that Diebold had diagnosed the problem early that year.
Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections administrator, defended Diebold's handling of the problem. "They have updated all the units, and the problem has been resolved," he said.
Mike Morrill, Diebold's Maryland spokesman, said the company had not completed its research into screen freezes until early 2005, when it agreed to replace all the system boards as the only way to guarantee that the problem would not recur.
He said the flawed system boards were confined to the four counties because other counties received machines with updated system boards. Montgomery experienced screen freezes more often than the others, Morrill said.
The screen freezes are unrelated to the problems experienced in September's primary, when Diebold's electronic voter-registration machines rebooted without warning in every Maryland precinct. The rebooting was caused by a software defect, which Diebold says has been corrected.
Even so, the two leading candidates for governor -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) -- have called on voters to use absentee ballots in the election, citing uncertainties about the reliability of Maryland's system.Disclosure Issues
State and Diebold officials have been discreet in discussing the replacement of the system boards -- the core electronic component of the voting machines -- to address the screen freezes.
Morrill, the Diebold spokesman, said the company had "publicly disclosed" information about the problem and its solution in communications with the State Board of Elections staff, including a six-page letter from an executive to state Administrator of Elections Linda H. Lamone written in reply to her questions about the system boards.
But the minutes of the July 12, 2005, meeting of the election board said only that a "technology refresh" would be conducted to bring voting units from the four counties "up to the same specifications as the equipment in the later phases of the implementation." The minutes did not mention the replacement of thousands of system boards.
Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger and members Joan Beck and A. Susan Widerman said they do not recall being told that system boards would be replaced as part of the technology refresh.
Burger said Lamone should have brought the replacement of the system boards to the board's attention. "If she withheld this information from the body she reports to, I think she is not carrying out her duties as a public official," said Burger, who in 2004 sought with other Ehrlich appointees to oust Lamone, a move that was blocked in court.
Goldstein said board members could have learned the details of the technology refresh. "If they had asked, we would have told them," he said.
Within the company's Maryland offices, executives tried to keep confidential any discussion of the need to replace system boards, according to four former Diebold contractors interviewed in recent weeks.
On Dec. 6, 2004, Tom Feehan, Diebold's Maryland project manager, replied to a subordinate's e-mail that referred to Diebold engineers in Ohio replacing system boards in "failed units" from Montgomery. Feehan's three-sentence reply was sent to the subordinate and two other employees who had received the original message.
"All, Please delete all copies of this e-mail," said Feehan's message, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. "It should have been sent confidential. Call me for further specifics."
Morrill said Feehan was concerned that the original e-mail "portrayed a decision as if it had been a final decision when in fact it was not made yet." Morrill said that "there was no secrecy" attached to the review of the system board problem and that at the time of the e-mail, Feehan was discussing the problem with state board staff members.
Diebold's upper echelon also appeared reluctant to discuss problems, according to several Maryland legislators who met privately with company executives in February 2006.
The executives attended an off-the-record session with members of the election law subcommittee of the House of Delegates to discuss the feasibility of Maryland switching to a system that would provide a paper record of each vote in time for this year's elections.
Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery) said she asked the Diebold executives several questions, including whether there had been hardware defects in Maryland voting machines. "They assured us that everything is fine," she said.
Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. (R-Washington) said that as at other sessions with executives of the company, "it was always 'no problem, no problem, no problem.' "
Morrill said Diebold executives have always made clear that "we've upgraded technology constantly on our machines, both in Maryland and in other states."A Record of Trouble
Under a 2001 contract with the state, Diebold sent nearly 4,700 electronic voting machines to the four counties in the first phase of Maryland's transition to a uniform electronic voting system.
In Sept. 10, 2002, primary elections, the machines had their first outing in Maryland. Montgomery's Board of Elections received 59 calls from precincts to report machines out of service. In the 2002 general election, the board received 53 such calls. Many of the machines were shut down after their screens froze, county officials said.
On February 1, 2004, Diebold's Maryland office issued a document, "Weekly Update of Montgomery County Root Cause Failure Analysis," that said the screen-freeze error "has been identified as a 'hardware' failure." The memo said no definitive single cause had been isolated but added that "replacement of the system board did resolve the problem."
The memo was obtained from the State Board of Elections through a lawsuit filed by Linda Schade, an activist with a group called TrueVoteMD. The group has tried to push Maryland to adopt a system that provides a verifiable paper trail of each vote cast.
A second Diebold memo provided by the board to Schade, dated March 28, 2004, blamed a "specific batch of RAM chips used in the manufacture of a quantity of system boards." It added that "batch-level tracking" was not used in the manufacturing process, so "it is impossible to identify or predict the occurrence of [system board] failures."
The second memo said 156 system boards had been replaced to address a variety of problems. Relative to the 16,000 Diebold voting machines in Maryland at the time, the memo said the 156 replacements represent a failure rate of 0.97 percent. "This is not a case of defective production units being released for shipment," the memo said. (A 2005 Diebold letter revised the number of system boards replaced to 129.)
Maintenance records obtained by The Post show that Diebold technicians in Ohio replaced an additional 133 system boards from June to November 2004, including those in machines that had experienced screen freezes.
By the 2004 general election, the screen-freeze problem had not been solved. Montgomery reported 106 screen freezes on Election Day, meaning that 4 percent of the 2,500 machines deployed in the county were affected.
The problems prompted another "root cause failure analysis" by Diebold. In February 2005, the screen-freeze problem was again identified as a "hardware issue," according to a memo. A March memo promised that the company would "implement permanent corrective or preventive action."
Staff writer Eric Rich and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.