Sunday, March 26, 2006

Florida County Supervisor Draws Criticism in His Quest to Ensure an Honest Vote

ABC News
Florida County Supervisor Draws Criticism in His Quest to Ensure an Honest Vote
The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Elections controversies just seem to stick to Florida. With the memory of a botched 2000 presidential election still etched in the minds of most elections supervisors in the state, Leon County's Ion Sancho is now finding he can't get the equipment he says he needs to guarantee an honest election.

Vendors of the ATM-like electronic voting machines, tired of Sancho's criticisms over the level of security in their software, no longer want to do business with him or the county. All three companies certified to do business in Florida Diebold Inc., Election Systems & Software Inc. and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. have said "no."

Sancho's insistence on quality also has angered several Florida officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, and has already cost his county more than a half million dollars.

Nonetheless, the feisty 55-year-old has his share of supporters, with the Tallahassee Democrat dubbing him "a zealous soldier in election reform battles."

"Ion is one of the few to ask the questions," said Herbert Thompson, chief security strategist for Boston-based firm Security Innovation. "Like, what is this thing actually doing to my vote? How is it processing my vote?"

Thompson said most elections officials use the new equipment blindly.

"Nowadays, with the electronic voting systems, you don't know what even looks suspicious if you're an elections official," Thompson said. "You need people who understand software and software security to understand what the risks are."

The 2000 vote recount in Florida that settled the U.S. presidential race exposed myriad problems in the state and led to widespread voter skepticism across the nation.

More problems surfaced during the 2002 election cycle in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in heavily populated southeastern Florida, helping to spur Congress to pass a law that led more counties to adopt the high-tech, e-voting equipment.

Nearly a quarter of Americans who voted in 2004 used an electronic ballot, almost doubling the percentage from the 2002 election, according to the political consulting firm, Election Data Services.

But a September report from Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, pointed to significant security and reliability problems long the subject of complaints from computer scientists and security experts.

A separate review of voting machine logs used in Palm Beach County in the 2002 election revealed thousands of errors just two years after it was forced to manually recount votes when Florida's massive elections problems surfaced while a presidential election was being settled.

Sancho wants to make sure such problems don't occur in Leon County.

"Florida is one example of how partisan politics interfere with having folks' votes being counted accurately," Sancho said in his office overlooking a series of mildew-stained white government buildings near the state Capitol. "Americans have taken elections for granted for far too long."

A major concern in Florida is around computerized ballots their frequent inability to produce a written receipt of a vote. Beginning with Nevada, some 25 states now have requirements for e-voting machines with attached printers producing voter-verified paper audit trails while others, like Florida, rely on the audit capabilities of the equipment.

"If you make a system that can be manipulated, unfortunately in our current political environment, it probably will be," Sancho said. "Why take that chance?"

He likes the optical scanners used in his county the past several election cycles, but if a county is going to use electronic machines, he believes there ought to be a paper trail. To underscore the system's vulnerabilities, he even had his own system hacked into in December.

And that has ruffled some of his colleagues around the state.

"He kind of has his own drummer," said Susan Gill, the Citrus County elections supervisor who also serves as president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. "He doesn't object to being viewed as someone standing out there by himself."

A 1986 Florida State law school graduate of Puerto Rican and French descent, Sancho worries that his demands for security guarantees have led vendors to boycott Leon County, home to Florida's capital in Tallahassee.

He recently ran into trouble with his commissioners over the loss of $564,421 in federal grant money because the county missed a Jan. 1 deadline for meeting a federal requirement to provide voting systems for disabled people. Now, it's up to the Legislature to decide whether to reinstate the money.

Sancho, who got into the elections business after losing a 1986 bid for a county commission seat in a disputed election, had tried to buy touchscreen machines for the disabled from ES&S, but they refused to fill his order.

"We did not believe that we would have the kind of working relationship that is key to providing smooth running, reliable and accurate elections," ES&S spokesman Ken Fields said.

Sequioa and Diebold also refused.

A Sequoia spokeswoman said it was simply a business decision.

"Due to the timing and everything our plate is full," Michelle Shafer said. "We haven't been taking on new customers that haven't already signed contracts."

Diebold, which currently supplies Leon's optical scanners, did not immediately return a message for comment. Leon has a legal dispute with Diebold over software upgrades for the optical scanners.

For the disabled, Sancho now prefers to use a vote-by-phone system from Louisville-based IVS LLC, saying it's cheaper, more reliable and more user-friendly, but it's not one of the three companies certified in Florida.

The three vendors' refusal to work with Sancho led to a complaint from the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition on Wednesday, asking Attorney General Charlie Crist to investigate if those companies were violating antitrust laws.

"It's of concern," Crist said Thursday. "We want to make sure we have free, fair and open elections."

Sancho met March 13 for the first time with Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb in hopes of getting equipment put in place by May 1.

"What he's done has put the entire state of Florida in jeopardy," Cobb's spokeswoman Jenny Nash said, explaining that the U.S. Department of Justice will declare the entire state noncompliant just because one county isn't.

While unpopular in some halls of government and even among some of his supervisors, Sancho is supported by voters in his county. First elected in 1988, he's been sent back four times since.

Sancho said the first elections supervisors conference he ever attended inspired his long pursuit of seeking perfection in the voting process. And he's still wary of the politics in that process.

"An honest man with integrity is probably not the person you want to bet on in the American political system," Sancho said.