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Florida: Voting Machine Firm Backs Out PDF  | Print |  Email
By Bill Cotterell , Tallahassee Democrat Political Editor   
January 14, 2006
Suspicious, Sancho consults lawyers

This article was published in the Tallahassee Democrat on Janury 14, 2006. It is reposted with permission of the author.

 A reluctant turndown, recorded on Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho's cell phone, and a holiday greeting from a corporate giant that he'd chosen to provide Leon County's voting machinery are the latest twists in Florida's long-running struggle with election reform.

Faced with a deadline this month to comply with handicapped-access provisions of federal law in time for the September primaries, Sancho got the County Commission to dump the old ballot scanners late last year and let him bring in a new company to include a laser-printing system. But the new company, Election Systems & Software, has backed out of the plan - leaving Sancho suspicious of its motives and consulting lawyers.

Sancho said ES&S has been seeking Leon County's business since 2004. He said Diebold Election Systems, which provided the current system, had violated its agreement with the county by refusing to upgrade software unless he signed a new contract and agreed never to link Diebold equipment to any other machinery.


Sancho wanted to couple his 160 Diebold scanners with the "Automark" system that is marketed by ES&S.


Sancho said Friday he will negotiate with Diebold and ES&S first, but has consulted attorneys about taking legal action to make them come to terms.


"I'm going to acquire state-certified, HAVA-compliant equipment in time for this year's elections," Sancho said. "To me, that means getting the Automark."


But Ken Fields, a spokesman for ES&S in St. Louis, said the company isn't interested. He declined to give details but said "we just decided that we would not be able to have the most effective partnership with the county."


David Bear, representing Diebold's elections division, said the company won't back down from its ban on coupling Diebold equipment with any competitor's computers.


"It would be like putting a Ford engine in a Chevy," he said. "They aren't compatible. We couldn't vouch for the accuracy and security of the whole system if they did that."

Sancho said the Leon County Commission last month authorized him to make the $1.8 million purchase, based on what he considered assurances from ES&S that it wanted the county's business.


He said the company approached him at a convention of elections officials in Denver in 2004 and kept up contact last year. After the County Commission action, Sancho said, he received a holiday greeting from company president Aldo Tesi that said, "Thank you for allowing us to service your election needs."


But four days after Christmas, Sancho found a voice message on his cell phone from Gary
Crump, the ES&S chief operating officer.


"We did due diligence and we took a look at our ability to deliver, and it's just not there to help you, Ion," Crump said in the recording. "Jumping in right now with a brand-new customer, with everything that is going to have to take place, we just don't feel it is in your best interests, and we really don't feel it's in ES&S's best interest."


Crump added, "We're just not going to be able to bring you on as a customer."


Sancho said he hopes to continue negotiation. He said it might be possible to acquire the Automark system directly from its manufacturer, Vogue Election Systems, without going through ES&S, the company licensed to market Automark.


But Bear said Diebold doesn't want its scanners linked to the Automark, no matter how Sancho acquires it.


Meanwhile, Sancho said he is consulting the county's legal staff and Attorney General Charlie Crist's office. He said he considered the Christmas card and repeated sales pitches through last year to be commitments from ES&S.


"Our position is to always attempt further negotiation before legal action," he said.

Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Sue Cobb, said the Automark system has not been certified by the state. But Sancho said it has been verified by several other states and that he expects it will be approved in time for the September primaries.


"HAVA says they have to have the equipment by January of '06, so I guess that means the deadline is the end of this month," Nash said. She said the county might risk some of its federal funding under the federal election-reform law for not complying, "if someone from the disabled community was to file a complaint."


WHAT'S AT STAKE?


Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho wants the "Automark" system because it allows blind people to use headphones to listen to a list of candidates and push a button for the ones they support. A voter with disabled limbs could use a puff of breath to move a device that marks the ballot.


Then, after choices are recorded, it prints a ballot - filling in ovals next to the names of their chosen candidates - and that ballot is run through the electronic scanners with all the others.

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