Government

Feed Me! Feed Me!

The Story Behind Clark County’s
Voter Machine Fiasco

by Lois Gross

ike the voracious plant in the play Little Shop of Horrors, "Feed me" seems to many Clark County taxpayers to be the demand repeatedly coming from the county Elections Department. The Sequoia Pacific voting machine first purchased in 1993 is eating taxpayers funds in such huge chunks it appalls any observant citizen watching the dollars the county government is spending. More appalling still is how irresponsibly millions of dollars have been spent— most taxpayers haven’t the slightest clue where the Clark County Election Department spends their money.

In 1992 Clark County was still using its aging Votomatic punch card voting system and there was general agreement it would soon need replacing. When County Manager Pat Shalmy brought Kathryn Ferguson to Clark County from Texas to be Registrar of Voters, she understandably turned her attention to new voting equipment. But the amount of energy she put into promoting one particular electronic voting system, the Sequoia Pacific, without doing a comprehensive study of Clark County and its voting needs, raised eyebrows. Suspicions increased when it was learned she was insistent on using a machine she had never actually used in an election at the Election Department in Bexar County, Texas. But she anxiously wanted the Clark County Board of Commissioners to approve this machine.

Though the Sequoia Pacific Company worked with her in Texas during a proposal process, Bexar County chose not to buy the company’s equipment. Perhaps Bexar County recognized that the machines are exceptionally costly, especially when the cost of warehousing, transporting and a large number of personnel are added to the original cost of approximately $5,600 each.

(Multiplied by the 1,300 first purchases this comes to $7.3 million, not the $6.8 million the public is told was the cost. It appears funds may have come from elsewhere in the budget.)

Washoe County was also looking at new voting equipment in the early 1990s and had demonstrations from several companies, among them Sequoia Pacific. Washoe County chose the Global Accuvote scanner, which in addition to being a smaller, lighter, simpler machine and less costly to repair than the Sequoia Pacific, had the added virtue of conforming to the Nevada law requiring a paper ballot, which is not provided by the Sequoia machine. The Global machine provides a good comparison to the Sequoia Pacific because the Global machine was purchased at about the same time, it is in use in Nevada and it services a growing community of voters.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS PINPOINTED

At a November, 1993 Clark County Commissioners meeting, Commissioners Karen Hayes and Don Schlesinger made strong statements regarding their trepidation about the security of the Sequoia Pacific machines. Commissioner Hayes repeatedly expressed concerns about how the machines could be "hacked into" or tampered with. Commissioner Schlesinger quoted one respected computer expert after another on how direct electronic recording (DRE) machines, like the Sequoia Pacific, are open to fraud.

One of the inventors of the DRE machines, cited by the commissioner, said he could "write a routine inside the system that not only changes the election outcome, but changes the (electronic) images to conform to it."

Another company, Microvote, begged for a chance to demonstrate its product to Clark County. The company was listened to, but then ignored. Global received the same treatment— this company did not even get the chance to give a presentation. Commissioner Paul Christiansen bemoaned the possibility that $5.6 million would be spent for machines that might be obsolete in a short time because of the rapid pace of changing computer technology, forcing the county to buy more.

THOSE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS MATERIALIZE

That was an interesting statement in several ways because despite the commissioner’s serious concerns, Christiansen voted for the machines anyway. According to the company the life of the machine is 10 to15 years and parts will need to be replaced within five years. Moreover, Registrar Ferguson had started out asking for 980 machines which she said would cost $5.6 million. But $5.6 million should have purchased 1,000 machines based on the $5,600 per unit price. Despite all the adverse comments and the requirement by Nevada law that government purchases must have open bidding when spending taxpayers’ money, Clark County commissioners purchased 1,300 machines, at a cost of $6.8 million. With taxpayer money, citizens got voting machines that are open to fraud, difficult to use and illegal by Nevada law which re-quires a paper ballot. In 1996 Ferguson spent $120,000 more to train voters on how to use the new machine, and also on get-out- the-vote ads to urge voters to use the new technology.

Despite those efforts the disastrous 1996 primary had long lines at polling places and the vote count ran 11 hours. Be-cause Ferguson promised results in three hours, technicians copied 5,000 files from the hard drive to disks because the vote count was running so late—seven hours later than any other county. Were these files crucial to the election outcome? The Election Department says no. Were they ever replaced? The Election Department didn’t say. What the Election Department did say was "Feed me," after another disastrous election in November 1996. An estimated 46,000 votes were lost due to long waits at the polls and other machine generated mishaps, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. Commissioners Lorraine Hunt and Bruce Woodbury responded to the disaster, saying the county would need more machines for the1998 election. In March, 1997 Ferguson estimated 70 more machines would be needed to keep the voters happy—at a cost of $385,000.

THE AFTERMATH

Sequoia Pacific Company said it felt responsible for the election disaster caused by its underestimation of how many machines Clark County needed, and offered as a gift to the county not just the needed 70 machines, but 168. Wasn’t Ferguson equally as responsible for the fiasco since she earns about $70,000 a year to provide the county with her expertise on just such matters?

Some taxpayers also worried that a $1.47 million gift from a for-profit company meant that they had been overcharged in the first place. Commissioner Erin Kenny announced at a March, 1997 meeting that she had been able to negotiate with Sequoia Pacific for an extra 100 machines—for a total gift of 268 voting machines. Other commissioners suggested that henceforth Commissioner Kenny should do all negotiating for them. The nave taxpayers should have been more wary.

The value of that gift was $1.47 million, but nine months later the old cry of "Feed me" was once again heard. Ferguson needed to buy 268 more machines because, she said, she misunderstood Sequoia Pacific and the gift was actually a two for one purchase. Or, variously, the 268 "gift" machines were a loan, until 268 more were bought, when the loan would turn into a purchase of 536 for the price of 268. She also gave an-other explanation, saying that she just did a lot of "complicated calculations" and discovered she needed precisely 268 more machines to serve voters satisfactorily. As much as she hated to say so, the fact that it turned out to be 268 she needed was just a "coincidence."

Ferguson also said it was important to buy the full amount because she does not like to use borrowed equipment, and "be-cause the machine may not be available after 1998. We don’t know what Sequoia’s position as a company will be at the time."

Thanks to Ferguson’s insistence and the rubber stamp approval of the County Commission, Clark County now has voting machines for which replacement parts may not be available either, because they have been discontinued or because the "position of the company" is tenuous. Ferguson, who said she doesn’t like borrowing, needed $1.47 million right away to pay for the "gift." The County Commission approved the purchase in December 1997. She assured the voters the machines will suffice through the year 2001. She hired more help to assist voters.

In Washoe County voters punch out votes on cards and slip the ballot into a Global machine that reads the vote immediately. No one needs help with that.

Clark County had 155 polling places in November, 1996. It now has 280. It owns 1,836 voting machines, a 60 percent increase over the original purchase. Washoe County, which bought 132 Global machines, still only needs 100 machines even though the county has experienced a 12 percent increase in voter registration. Washoe originally considered buying 200 machines for about $1 million. Clark County has spent $8.3 million. So far.

Another way to figure how much more Clark County tax-payers paid and will pay if the feeding frenzy continues, is to note that Washoe has 184,000 registered voters and Clark has 518,900. In a 1994 letter to the County Commission, Global calculated it would cost Clark County $1.5 million for their machines to give the same service the county paid $8.3 million for.

STORAGE AND CERTIFICATION

The warehouse used for the 1,300 machines was 29,000 square feet and cost $1,785 per month. Now, with 1,836 ma-chines, the Election Department is renting 72,000 square feet at $25,178 a month, although Ferguson says she only needs 56,000 square feet of storage space. The Election Department provides different answers about the use of the extra space. The space will be used to store county computers, or the county wants the warehouse to be "fully computerized."

Is there something wrong with this picture? Why is money being spent to rent a warehouse far larger than needed? Why does Ferguson claim her department may need as much as 63,000 square feet to accommodate growth over the next four years when she just purchased, according to her, enough new machines to fill the need through the year 2001? Aren’t those the next four years she’s talking about?

So why an increased need for space—unless she already has in mind a cry of dismay that her projections for Clark County growth were somehow unwittingly underestimated, and she doesn’t want voters to stand in line, so she needs another 70 or 100 machines. The Washoe Global machines from purchase to the present day are warehoused at very minimal cost to the public in a back room of the county building.

Nevada law requires the certification of voting machines (NRS 293b.105): "Counties may purchase or use voting equipment if certified by the Secretary of State." Global just did an upgrade on the Washoe machines and assured the Washoe County registrar that for the work done there was no need to recertify. But the registrar insisted she wants recertification done.

The Sequoia Pacific machines, Model D 4.1, were certified by former Secretary of State Cheryl Lau for voting , but not for early or absentee voting or challenged elections. It was tested in 1995 by Wyle Labs which only approved the hard-ware, not the software. Repeated requests over a year for a copy of that certification, required by law for use of the equipment, brought repeated promises from the Secretary of State’s Election Department to send a copy. It was never forthcoming and that office now admits it does not exist.

The taxpayers have paid $8.3 million for something and can’t even see inside. No one is permitted to see what the programmer has written because it is a "proprietary trade secret," according to the programmer. Clark County bought a pig in a poke. Just who and what have Clark County taxpayers been feeding? Its voters are voting on a machine that is expensive, possible to compromise, and illegal.

Lois Gross is a concerned citizen and political activist.


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