By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler filed a claim against Premier Election Solutions to recover $8.5 million spent by the state to fix problems with the company's touch-screen voting machines.
The claim against Texas-based Premier, formerly Diebold, alleges that state elections officials were forced to spend millions of dollars to address a host of security flaws in the machines from 2003 through the November election.
Many of the problems could have compromised the integrity of the election had they not been fixed, officials said. Now the state wants its money back.
"The Board of Elections took the position that they should fix the system first and worry about the payments later," said Austin Schlick, the attorney general's chief of litigation. "In Maryland, we did things over and above what any other state has done" to ensure a smooth election, he said.
Maryland plans to withhold payment of approximately $3.5 million it owes Premier for preparations for the 2008 election until the matter is resolved, Schlick said.
Premier is disputing the allegation, saying the company is "puzzled by the timing and vagueness" of the action and calling it "inaccurate and unfounded."
"Maryland just completed one of the smoothest elections in the state's history," Premier President Dave Byrd said in a statement. The claim "is based on events that occurred five or more years ago," he said.
The Maryland Board of Contract Appeals, an independent entity that resolves disputes between vendors and state agencies, will consider the claim.
The dispute comes as Maryland and Virginia prepare to scrap the electronic voting systems they bought after the 2000 presidential election. The machines, which have cost Maryland $65 million, were a state-of-the-art answer to the paper ballots that were seen as unreliable in Florida in 2000. Now, paper ballots read by optical scan machines are considered more reliable than the touch-screen ones, which officials and lawmakers have concluded could crash or be hacked into.
Several states, including Ohio and California, are in legal disputes with Premier over security issues. Maryland contracted with Diebold in 2001. But a few years later, the claim alleges, security problems surfaced and the state paid to fix them based on the advice of independent experts.
For example, the machines lacked a seal to prevent someone from tampering with the voting software, and the Board of Elections spent $1 million on equipment and staff to make sure that software fixes made by the company were done properly, Schlick said.