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Voting-system maker blasted
County, city might withhold payments over count problems

Friday, March 24, 2006
Chicago Tribune

By John McCormick and David Kidwell, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Mickey Ciokajlo and Josh Noel contributed to this report

Published With ballot counting not expected to be done in Cook County until this weekend, election officials said Thursday they may withhold payments to Sequoia Voting Systems until the equipment manufacturer has fixed any problems.

Election officials have acknowledged a lack of training for election judges facing the daunting task of using a new and complex system in Tuesday's primary. But they increased their public criticism of Sequoia, saying it "did not perform adequately."

Scott Burnham, a spokesman for Cook County Clerk David Orr, said the county has paid California-based Sequoia about $7.8 million so far. "We will not make additional payments until we are satisfied with the system," he said.

"There will be contract ramifications from their performance," said Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, noting that about $15 million of the city's portion of the Sequoia contract remains unpaid.As the counting continues, the lack of final totals has left several area communities uncertain about referendum outcomes for libraries and other projects. With 96 percent in, a tight race also remains for the Republican nomination in the 15th District for the Cook County Board between Carl Hansen and Timothy Schneider.

Chicago commissioners in June approved a contract worth about $28 million for a dual voting system that includes optical scanners for paper ballots and touch-screen voting machines. A few days earlier, Orr had recommended Sequoia for a county contract worth $23.8 million.

As the election board prepares for November's general election, when there will be a much heavier turnout, Neal said "immediate steps" are needed to resolve the problems, including the hiring of an independent expert to review Sequoia's software and hardware.

Neal said the board plans to appoint an election judge for each polling place who will receive added training and extra pay. He said a survey of election judges would also be done to solicit suggestions for fixes.

After seeing scanners jam on 21-inch ballots, Neal promised "extensive testing" before those machines are redeployed. He said efforts would be made to simplify the machine that is supposed to combine results from the two voting systems and transmit them downtown.

Neal, who called the last few days "extremely embarrassing," said the most severe problems were primarily limited to about 15 percent of precincts. He said at least some memory cards containing vote totals were defective or damaged, perhaps because they were inserted into a compiling machine while it was on, even though that is something Sequoia warned against doing. Paper trails are available for both voting systems, if the data storage devices are compromised.

"This is something we knew about, and elections departments have known about, all along," said Michelle Shafer, a Sequoia spokeswoman. "That is why in training we are so emphatic about turning the machines off before the cartridges are inserted."

Shafer said she had not heard about the possibility of payments being withheld because of the problems. "Right now, we are just working as closely with our clients as we can to close out this election," she said.

Those waiting for results say they are increasingly frustrated.

"I'm becoming more and more concerned about the integrity because no one can give me any answers," said Schneider, one of the County Board candidates still waiting for results in a close race.

Burnham said election officials are also frustrated with the delays, "but we can vouch for the integrity of the ballots."

A Tribune survey of other counties that use Sequoia showed Chicago and Cook County are on the low end when it comes to training times for poll workers. Training lasted three hours here. In Pinellas County, Fla., election judges get three to seven hours of training, while those in Carson City, Nev., get about six hours.

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