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Voting-machine maker on defense
Election trouble puts exec on the hot seat

Thursday, April 27, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by John McCormick

Jack Blaine, president of the company that made the voting machines used in Cook County's glitch-filled March primary, is used to jetting around the country selling election equipment.

These days, however, the head of Sequoia Voting Systems is racking up frequent flier credits defending his products to angry election officials and testifying before committees.

Outcomes in Chicago's March 21 primary went undetermined for days, and the problems cast doubts on more than $50 million of new Sequoia equipment.

Besides shaking the confidence of voters, the problems have also tarnished Sequoia's reputation, providing the latest hit for an industry that is the frequent target of electoral conspiracy theories.

As the company's invoices to Chicago and Cook County remain unpaid in protest, a committee of the Cook County Board will hold a hearing Thursday to look at how similar problems can be prevented in November. The State Board of Elections and a committee of the Chicago City Council have already held similar inquiries.

Election officials have acknowledged a lack of training for election judges who were using the new and complex system. But they have also pointed fingers at Sequoia, saying the firm and its equipment did not perform adequately.

The company says that's unfair.

"The only major disappointment was the slow tabulation of the results," Blaine said in a recent interview. "We can improve on the user-friendliness of the equipment."

While the company has previously found itself embroiled in disputes in Florida and Washington state because of equipment failures and other issues, its reputation has never before taken such a blow from a single election in the U.S.

The confusion in Cook County--primarily from widespread failures in the remote reporting of results from polling places--was reported on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in late March, just as officials in Allegheny County, Pa., were finalizing an $11.8 million contract with Sequoia.

Although different machines were to be used in Pennsylvania, the experience in Chicago and suburban Cook County concerned Allegheny officials enough that they went with another vendor.

"I gotta believe this had an impact on it," Blaine said. "But I know of no other [business] fallout."

Much of the angst about Sequoia is related to its purchase in March 2005 by Smartmatic Corp., a company that provided voting machines for the controversial 2004 recall election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Smartmatic's involvement in U.S. elections troubles some, including Chicago Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who has suggested that the company's equipment could be part of a Venezuelan conspiracy to subvert American democracy.

Chicago and Cook County election officials, meanwhile, were aware of the international controversy surrounding Sequoia well before they awarded the company contracts. A county consultant pitched Smartmatic's foreign ties as an advantage.

"Smartmatic, which provided the election machines for the Venezuelan vote, can rightly claim that they have conducted one of the most closely watched, carefully audited, and statistically analyzed elections in recent history," Oak Park-based Major Scale Technology Management wrote in a memo to Cook County Clerk David Orr's office.

Sequoia is on its second owner since 2000, when companies started to see a potential windfall from the call for improved voting technology following the controversial presidential election that year.

More than 97 percent of Smartmatic, a privately held company like Sequoia, is owned by the firm's four founders, the company said in a letter responding to Burke's hearing. Antonio Mugica, the company's chief executive officer, owns 75 percent of the shares.

Whatever baggage Sequoia had prior to its selection, election officials would likely have faced similar criticism had they picked other vendors.

"All of the major manufacturers have had significant problems in counting the vote accurately and, in some cases, ethical issues as well," said Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, a national voting watchdog group.

Ohio-based Diebold Inc., for example, has been mired in controversy since its former chairman pledged in a letter to deliver victory for President Bush in Ohio in 2004. The company, one of the finalists here, has since taken steps to isolate itself from politics.

Although Sequoia's offices are only a short drive from Silicon Valley, home to hundreds of high-tech companies, most of its products are manufactured on contract by two New York firms, Jaco Electronics and Harvard Custom Manufacturing.

Officials say it would be almost impossible to change vendors in time for the November election--and also potentially costly. Still, Diebold has since tried to reopen discussions following the Sequoia flap.

"We have made an offer to sit back down with them and offer a proven solution," said David Bear, a company spokesman.

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