WASHINGTON – Key state lawmakers have begun preparing for the possibility that the company producing Maryland’s electronic voting machines might exit the ballot business.
Their concerns stem from recent comments by the company’s CEO, controversy over the machines’ security and weeks of General Assembly debate over requiring the state’s machines to produce paper records.
Earlier this month, Thomas Swidarski, chief executive of Diebold Inc., which produces the state’s voting machines, told the Associated Press he will evaluate whether the company should remain in the electronic voting machine industry. The subsidiary is worth about $100 million of the corporation’s total annual revenue of $2.6 billion, Swidarski said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
“There’s pieces and aspects of each of our businesses that I’m going to be looking at with a very critical eye in terms of what the future holds for us,” said Swidarski, who assumed his position in December after his predecessor resigned in a controversy over his work as a Republican fundraiser.
Two top lawmakers were so concerned that they sent a letter to the Attorney General asking whether the AP article or another state’s possible decision to decertify Diebold machines warranted justification for terminating the Diebold contract.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch responded to the query from House Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the bill to require the machines produce paper records, and Delegate Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s. Zarnoch wrote that neither incident was strong enough evidence, however the contract could be terminated if the state had to decertify the machines, or if Diebold would “abandon the voting machine business and attempt to walk away from its duties under contract with the state.”
A Diebold spokesman said the article was “taken out of context” and Swidarski’s evaluation is routine for any business.
Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, who out of concerns about Diebold machines has proposed leasing optical scanners for use in the November statewide election, said she asked the Attorney General about possible litigation against Diebold.
“What happens to the maintenance part of the contract?” said Bobo. “If you sign a contract with someone and include a maintenance clause and then go out of business, that’s got to be an implication.”
The state purchased the machines for about $56 million, and the machines cost about $1 million to maintain, according to the state budget office.
“My hope is that we go to optical scan machines,” Bobo said. “I have become convinced (Maryland’s Diebold machines) are inherently insecure no matter what the technology or if a printer is attached.”
Nebraska-based Election System and Software told The (Baltimore) Sun it could set up an optical-scan system by the September elections.
Critics of Maryland’s Diebold machines call them vulnerable to hackers and say paper-trails are better to settle disputes. Linda Lamone, state Board of Elections administrator, has said the current Diebold machines work well and replacements would be expensive and not ready by the September elections.
Optical scanners — which are used for absentee ballots — are not free of security concerns. They are computer-based in that the ballot is fed through a machine that picks up its information using computer software.
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore, said Bobo’s proposal is the best option this close to an election.
“We either cross our fingers and stay with Diebold or try something new,” he said. “I don’t know what other routes we can take. We’ve pretty much run out of time.”
Forcing Maryland to find a new vendor like ESS is met with mixed interpretations. Bev Harris, author of “Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century,” said ESS has more problems than Diebold.
“ESS has a pretty terrible track record for the machines,” she said. “The only difference is that ESS has managed to be more secretive than Diebold about what it has done.”
Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, Senate sponsor version of the paper trails bill, said she is not worried about a contract dispute because Diebold told her it is staying in the industry.