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Neal questioned by council over voting night delays

Thursday, April 06, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Meghan Streit

Chicago aldermen will call officials responsible for last month's primary election disaster on the carpet, asking what went wrong and how they will make sure it does not happen again in November's general election.

Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, and
Jack Blaine, president of Sequoia Voting Systems, the provider of the touch screen voting machines used throughout Cook County on March 21, will both be at the hearing to answer questions.

"These hearings are a fact-finding mission," said Donal Quinlan, media liaison for the City Council Committee on Finance. "We simply don't know whether there was poor training of the election judges, if there was mass confusion, or if there was a problem with the equipment."

Quinlan said Ald. Edward Burke (14) also intends to question Blaine about the ownership structure of his Oakland, Calif.-based company. Recent newspaper
reports that Sequoia's parent, Smartmatic International, was accused of aiding Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in fixing elections, have raised questions about who controls Sequoia.

"I have a press release from Sequoia datelined 'Caracas,' but they are supposed to be Boca Raton-based," Quinlan said. "Essentially, it's a two-pronged hearing: Why did the election returns take so long to count and who are the principals of Sequoia?"

Sequoia's press release indicates the company's privately held parent is "owned by a Dutch holding company, which also owns all of the other companies in which Smartmatic currently conducts business," but does not name that holding company. Smartmatic's founder and CEO, Antonio Mugica, who has a controlling interest in Smartmatic, is a dual citizen of Spain and Venezuela.

"No part of our company is owned by the Venezuelan government, and any reference to that is false," said Michelle Shafer, Sequoia's vice president of communications and external affairs.

Tom Leach, director of public information for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, dismissed suspicions of ties to the Venezuelan government and said the board itself has no problem with Smartmatic's ownership of Sequoia.

"This company's been in business in the U.S. for 100 years," Leach said. "I don't think the strings are being pulled in Venezuela."

Sequoia maintains that the $26 million of voting equipment it sold to Chicago and Cook County performed properly on election day. Company officials attribute the tabulation delays and reporting errors to the learning curve of election judges adapting to the new machines. It took county election officials nearly a week to complete counting the primary election votes.

"Whether it's your office network, cell phone, iPod, or yes, even your voting device, there are going to be growing pains associated with the introduction of new technology," Blaine said in a press release.

The board of election has admitted that there were major problems with the election process, including inadequate training of some judges. Leach said the
fact that 14 percent of precincts were unable to report on election night was a disappointment, but the board expected the process to be slower than usual.

"We don't consider the election as bad as it was portrayed," Leach said.

Still, the board recently announced an 11-point program for ballot improvement. Initiatives include an expert review of Sequoia's software and hardware, interviews with election judges and voters, recruitment of judges with technology skills and experience, and other measures.

"Some of the judges obviously didn't know how to use the equipment," Leach
said.

Meghan Streit is a reporter for the Medill News Service.



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