Chicago officials may hold up voting machine payments

Election officials in Chicago and Cook County are threatening to withhold payments of millions of dollars to a voting machine company because they are disgusted with their machines’ performance in the March 21 primary election.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Chicago Election Chairman Landon Neal said it was “embarrassing” that hundreds of Sequoia Smartmatic voting machines failed to correctly produce votes, and Cook County Clerk David Orr stated he’s holding “very serious conversations” with Sequoia Voting Systems about the problems.

Sequoia, which sold out to Smartmatic in 2005, won the contract last year to furnish $50 million worth of new voting equipment that was required to comply with the Help America Vote Act.

Voters in the Chicago area used both touch-screen and optical scan machines. The problems arose when election officials tried to merge the two systems to produce vote totals, and many machines failed.

Smartmatic officials adamantly insist nothing is wrong with the machines, that the problem likely is training. Others, however, aren’t necessarily buying that theory.

“If Tuesday was opening night of the performance, it was a flop,” city election commissioner Richard Cowen told the Sun-Times. “I won’t vote to approve any further distribution to Sequoia.”

Neal said: “There will be contract ramifications from their performance,” whether they “withhold pay or seek appropriate remedies.” Neal said the city of Chicago has paid about $11 million on its $26 million contract. He has spelled out a series of reforms he intends to implement before the general election in November. “Believe you me,” he said, “we’ll seek payment from Sequoia for anything that we have to expend in a corrective fashion.”

Scott Burnham, a spokesman for Orr, said the county has paid $8 million of its $24 million contract with Sequoia, but “we’re not going to make [further] payments until we’re satisfied with the system.”

Michelle Shafer of Sequoia said the company will continue to work with election officials to answer questions and try to solve problems. She said: “The machines worked very well in the polling places,” adding that the company will review procedures, simplifying training and “whatever we can do to streamline the process.”

Cowen would like to cut about 1,000 Chicago precincts to reduce the number of election judges needed. Neal was not favorable toward that plan, but said the machines “while unacceptably slow, were accurate” and the vote provided “the most fraud-free election we’ve had in 10 years.”

In February, AP reported that the Web site Black Box Voting, operated by Bev Harris, said it found about 100,000 errors with Sequoia machines in the 2004 election in Florida. Harris said hard drives on some of the machines crashed, and some machines had to be rebooted repeatedly. On election day, Harris reported, some 1,473 re-calibrations were done on more than 4,300 Sequoia machines. Harris said the re-calibrating is done when machines malfunction.

Palm Beach County election officials charged Harris’ findings were flawed and that most of the errors were the fault of voters not following proper procedure. Shafer said the voting machines worked correctly. They are used in five Florida counties and 21 states. “There was a fine election in November 2004,” she said.

Harris reported that one Sequoia machine in Florida showed 112 votes were cast Oct. 16, two days before early voting began, evidence of tampering. She said her investigators found evidence of tampering on more than 30 machines in one county. Several dozen machines recorded votes for the Nov. 2, 2004, election on dates such as Oct. 16, 15, 19, 13, 25, 26 and one tape had a date of 2010.

There also were wrong polling times appearing, with the machines showing ballots cast through the night.

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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