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City warned about voting machine comments

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by John McCormick

Chicago election officials were told Tuesday that they can legally withhold payments to Sequoia Voting Systems, but only if they can prove the California company failed to live up to the terms of its contract.

Short of that, members of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners were warned by their lawyer to watch what they say about the equipment manufacturer.

Chicago and Cook County officials have acknowledged a lack of training for election judges who faced the daunting task of using a new and complex system in last week's primary. But they have also previously pointed fingers at Sequoia, saying the firm did not perform adequately.

In a memo obtained by the Tribune, the board's lawyer told members, meeting for the first time since the primary, that they are entitled to "withhold or offset payments to Sequoia if there has been a breach of contract."

But James Scanlon also said "serious repercussions" could result from making comments about the company that are not fully supported.

"Until enough solid facts can be gathered to sustain an allegation of breach of contract, I would caution the commissioners and staff to be careful in making comments to the public regarding Sequoia's performance and possible breach of contract," he wrote.

The caution came as Sequoia sent its president to the board meeting and issued a statement countering any suggestion that it was responsible for the election's chaos, which included a manual count of votes from hundreds of precincts that took nearly a week, ending Tuesday.

"While we are confident the tabulation technology worked appropriately, we will be reviewing the opportunities to make it more user-friendly," the company said. "As with most technology implementations, the problems are not necessarily inherent in the equipment itself, but with the intersection of the new technology and the people who use it."

Sequoia said it supports a full review and expects it to show its equipment was not to blame.

"These investigations will support Sequoia's position that our company, in both action and equipment performance, met all of our contractual and ethical obligations," the company said.

Michelle Shafer, a Sequoia spokeswoman, said the company has no plans to offer any discounts because of the election snafus. "That's not anything that we have thought about at this point," she said.

The city and county owe about $30 million on contracts worth roughly $52 million. Several officials have in recent days suggested withholding scheduled payments until the problems are identified.

The reputation of election equipment manufacturers has proven especially important following the heightened attention given to voting mechanics following the controversial 2000 presidential election.

"That's obviously a concern," Shafer said. "No company likes to read the headlines we have been seeing."

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