Ballot machine noted for problemsM650 used in Davison County cited as error-prone elsewhere.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
It’s unknown at this time if human or computer error caused the June 5 ballot counting problems at the Davison County Courthouse, but it’s not the first time an Election Systems & Software M650 ballot scanner has been involved in election irregularities.
The group VotersUnite.org has posted lists of nationwide ballot system problems on its website. The group alleges that miscounts and errors have become commonplace with ballot scanners including the M650. Its site lists numerous instances of voting system problems going back nearly a decade.
In Mitchell, a June 7 recount prior to the official canvass of ballots showed that ballot totals from the M650 were higher on June 5 than they should have been. The recount did not change the election, but it created questions about the reliability of the M650 system.
Mitchell school board candidate Craig Guymon, who ran a distant third in the race for two available seats on the board, filed a complaint with the First Judicial Circuit Court in Mitchell on June 15, contesting the results of the school board election.
Guymon said he doesn’t trust the inconsistent ballot counts generated by the M650 and asked the court for a hand count of ballots or a new election.
Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke said Tuesday that ES&S will not examine the county’s M650 computer logs for problems until the lawsuit is settled.
On June 5, while Davison County was having its vote-counting problems, M650 ballot counters were also causing headaches for Lincoln, Powell and Sanders counties in Montana, according to The Missoulian newspaper of Missoula, Mont.
The most serious problem was in Lincoln County, Mont., where an M650 counter failed to correctly read one marked column of a ballot, resulting in incorrect counts. In Powell County, voters incorrectly marked their ballots with X’s, causing a machine miscount, and in Sanders County, misaligned sensors initially misread ballots, but technicians corrected the problem.
Saguache County — a rural county of about 6,100 residents in south central Colorado — is still dealing with the aftermath of its November 2010 election.
The county’s M650 ballot counter, which it purchased just prior to that election, posted inconsistent ballot totals on Election Night and a subsequent recount reversed the outcome of two races.
Blowback from the M650 ballot miscount eventually led to a grand jury investigation and a recall election in January 2012 that unseated former Clerk and Recorder Melinda Myers (the county clerk is the chief election official in Colorado counties) and ignited an ongoing and expensive lawsuit filed by Marilyn Marks, the head of Citizen Center, an Aspen-based voters rights group. That group has sued at least six Colorado counties to get details of election results.
Representatives from nearby El Paso County were recruited to hand-count the results of the January 2012 recall election in Saguache County.
“It’s been a real nightmare,” said Saguache County Commissioner Sam Pace. “All I know is that it has cost us a lot of money and it’s really sad.”
Pace believes the incorrect ballot totals on Nov. 2, 2010, were probably the result of software problems, but that has yet to be determined.
He said the lawsuit was filed when the county refused a request Marks’ group made under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). ES&S claimed the requested voter record logs contained proprietary company information. Saguache County, in other words, was caught between the public’s right to know and ES&S’s right to safeguard private information.
A Colorado judge ordered Saguache County’s M650 ballot scanner sealed until the suit is settled, said newly elected Clerk Carla Gomez.
The M650 system, however, does have its fans.
Secretary of State Jason Gant said about 10 to 12 South Dakota counties use the scanner. Many others use the less-expensive ES&S M100 ballot counter.
June 5 was the first election for newly elected Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz, but he said his county’s four M650 ballot scanners have a history of reliability.
“It’s an amazing machine,” he said, “but they’re also fussy machines, so we only want certain people working on them. The only physical problems we’ve had are from folded absentee ballots that stick together and sometimes don’t feed through the machine correctly.”
In such cases, or in cases of mismarked ballots, the M650 stops instantly, Litz said, adding, “We’ve had no issues — knock on wood.”
A major difference between Davison and Minnehaha counties is that the latter programs its M650 machines in-house.
Davison County, on the other hand, sends a blank Zip disk to Synergy Graphics of St. Cloud, Minn., to be programmed with election information. The programmed disk is then returned to the county by mail, Kiepke said.
Ballots and programs must also be proofed and verified. The pre-election checks are designed to prevent Election Night errors, she said.
Zip disks, which are verging on technical obsolescence, remain a major part of the ES&S M650 ballot scanner. The disks, which look like large, beefy floppy drives, became notorious in the late 1990s for what became known as the “click of death” — named for the audible sound a Zip drive made when a Zip disk became unreadable.
Dan Muck, the Mitchell School District’s chief technology officer, said Zip disks, which have been around for nearly two decades, have been supplanted by flash storage, and other backup systems, which have proven more stable, dependable and less susceptible to data corruption. Muck said modern backup systems are much more reliable and that the last time his office used a Zip drive was eight years ago.
Muck said the floppy magnetic media inside the hard-shelled Zip disk ages and breaks down unless the disks are kept in climate-controlled conditions.
Meanwhile, back in Saguache County, Gomez is busily preparing for next week’s Colorado primary election.
She has rented two basic M100 ballot counters from ES&S but, just to be sure, she will also hand-count the primary ballots the next day. She’s not sure what system her county will have in place for the November general election.
“It’s a really big issue here,” Gomez said. “I decided that we’ll do a recount because the people wanted it. There’s some distrust of the machine. We’re trying to get back on track and to regain people’s confidence in the election system.”
ES&S did not respond to phone messages from The Daily Republic.