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Monday, November 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Questions remain about touchscreen voting machines

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Snohomish County election officials are hoping tomorrow's vote goes better than the September primary.

They think they've addressed and fixed the problems that caused 65 out of 860 touchscreen voting machines to be taken out of service during the primary. The number was considered "unacceptably high" by County Auditor Bob Terwilliger, whose concerns prompted an investigation by Sequoia Voting Systems, vendors for the e-voting machines.

Most of the problems could be chalked up to "user error." But enough questions remain concerning mechanical breakdowns on 20 of the touchscreens to cause the county to take extra precautions for tomorrow's election.

About 40 of the machines malfunctioned because of "operational issues," said Alfie Charles, spokesman for Sequoia, based in Oakland, Calif. In an Oct. 1 letter to Terwilliger signed by Vice President for Operations Michael Frontera, Sequoia blamed the problems on "minor technical and procedural issues."

Operational issues included improperly plugged-in machines and oily finger residue on smart cards used to activate the machines, Terwilliger said.

Although polling-place officials were trained to address potential problems and instruct voters on touchscreen use, some problems arose that required additional expertise. Rather than try to send repair or support personnel to various sites, the county pulled the machines from use.

"We can't stress enough that no votes were lost or uncounted because of this," Terwilliger said. Voters simply were asked to use other machines. For touchscreens taken out of service, vote counts were still intact and recordable.

Sequoia's Charles said the equipment-failure rate of around 2.5 percent is unusually high for an election. Moreover, Sequoia does not know why that many machines would fail for random and apparently unrelated reasons. The machines underwent rigorous testing and trials.

But Terwilliger said the 20 breakdowns all involved circuit boards manufactured by a third-party vendor. Terwilliger also said Sequoia has not supplied a full machine-by-machine accounting of the breakdowns. The county and Sequoia disagree on the exact number of machines affected — Sequoia puts the number at 17.

Most have been in use since 2002, when Snohomish County became the first in the state to adopt touchscreen voting. But nothing like the problems of the primary affected previous county elections, and Charles said the failure rate exceeded Sequoia's experience elsewhere.

Neither the county nor Sequoia is "willing to live with that rate of failure," Terwilliger said. The county has made "every effort to avoid" a similar episode tomorrow because of an expected strong voter turnout.
Snohomish County will have 36 mobile troubleshooters covering nine routes to address problems on-site, Terwilliger said. The county also has 54 backup machines ready.

Each touchscreen machine has been tested "to the fullest extent possible," Terwilliger said. If a similar number of machines fail tomorrow, it would suggest Sequoia "has some real problems on its hands," he said.

Sequoia's equipment has drawn attention in part because it supplies voting machines in several "battleground" states, including Florida. Because of the nature of the failures, and because Washington is no longer considered a swing state, voting activists haven't raised alarms over the Snohomish County primary. A Web site,, set up to track e-voting problems, does not include Snohomish County.

But the site does identify problems associated with Sequoia Voting Systems elsewhere, and local activists say they will be watching for similar issues in Snohomish County tomorrow. And no matter what happens, activists say, they will continue to press for a voter-verifiable and auditable paper trail to ensure accuracy in future elections.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at

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