Activists cry foul in electronic voting furore

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The Independent US

US voting activists who fear an "electoral train wreck" worse than Florida 2000 if electronic ballot machines are allowed to determine the outcome of November's presidential election, are claiming a breakthrough victory after the scandal-ridden resignation of one of the country's most outspoken e-voting apologists.

After years denying theevidence that touchscreen voting machines were unreliable and prone to tampering, the registrar of voters in Riverside County, California, Mischelle Townsend, suddenly announced her retirement - supposedly to spend more time with her family.

It seems more than likely, however, than her decision was swayed by a looming lawsuit challenging her handling of a recount in a local county race in March, and a flurry of allegations about her own conduct in office and the misleading claims of Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that makes and services the county's voting machinery. Ms Townsend was among the first US election registrars to introduce electronic voting, even before November 2000. Despite initial praise for her farsightedness, her judgment has come under increasing scrutiny.

According to the staff of one candidate, who were present in her office on election night, Ms Townsend inexplicably halted the count for about an hour while two Sequoia employees were observed typing at a computer terminal with access to the ballot tabulation software.

Only authorised county elections officers are supposed to have access to the machines during an election. And making software changes - if that is what happened - would be illegal. Before the counting stopped, candidate Linda Soubirous looked likely to qualify for a run-off with the man she was challenging, county supervisor Bob Buster. When it resumed, she fell steadily behind and eventually failed to qualify for the run-off by less than one-10th of one percentage point.

Ms Soubirous requested a recount, only to have Ms Townsend stonewall almost every request she made for machine data that might show a discrepancy. She is now about to sue the county for failing to respect basic electoral procedures.

Sequoia has denied any wrongdoing. Ms Townsend has refused to be drawn on what happened. Riverside's district attorney, at her request, investigated the accusations and cleared her of wrongdoing. But the district attorney was an overt supporter of Mr Buster's and a client of the same political consultancy firm used by both Mr Buster and Sequoia, casting doubt on his impartiality.

This is exactly the sort of dispute opponents of e-voting fear might erupt across the country in November. It has been shown that private voting machine companies are using uncertified software, much of it improvised at the last minute.

Until recently, it appeared that Ms Townsend and her allies were winning the argument, and touchscreen machines - with lavish financial backing from the Bush administration -- were installed across much of the southern and western United States. Now, however, a backlash is in full swing, with California leading the way in decertifying touchscreen machines and insisting on much higher security standards.

Both Sequoia and its rival Diebold Election Systems have made the mistake of leaving their computer software on unprotected internet sites, allowing computer experts to examine it and find all sorts of alarming flaws at odds with official claims.

In Maryland on Friday, a group of activists filed for an injunction preventing the use of Diebold machines in November. The group has described the suit as "perhaps the last and only opportunity to avert the possibility of an electoral train wreck before it actually occurs".