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With a phone call and a retainer, Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell has launched former Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew on a 50-state ambassadorship for electronic voting. O'Dell said he ``wanted to reframe some of the issues,'' Andrew said.
His first stop: California, the nation's largest market for voting machines and the place where Diebold's fortunes as the largest supplier of electronic-voting machines in the nation could be made or broken.
``Even if you have tremendous success every place else,'' said Andrew, ``if you can't sell technology in California, you're in trouble.''
The rest of the voting industry is selling technology here. Millions in federal dollars sit ready for counties to put at least one high-tech, handicapped-accessible voting machine in every polling place by January.
But in California, Diebold can't sell its touchscreen voting machine, the AccuVote TSx, nor can counties that bought thousands of the machines in 2003 used them in elections.
More than $30 million worth of TSx machines sit in three counties' warehouses, unapproved for actual voting. More than $15 million worth of earlier-generation Diebold touchscreens in Alameda, Los Angeles and Plumas counties cannot be used after January.
Andrew said computer scientists and e-voting activists are standing in the way of a promising technology, an ATM-like voting computer with such a low error rate that more votes count. And that, said Andrew, should work to the benefit of Democrats.
The tour pairs Andrew with former Republican congressional aide Melissa McKay, now working for the public-relations firm, Ogilvy PR. But California and its Democrats were clearly Andrew's show.
Diebold's new charm offensive for Democrats strikes some as a public-relations gambit, a segue from mishaps and mistakes in its voting business to the uncontroversial notion of making more votes count for the elderly, minorities and disabled voters.
``This is a new tactic, a new solution for a company that, unlike other electronic-voting companies, has a continuing public-relations problem, certainly in California,'' said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for voting-reform information.
``It's not based on nothing,'' Seligson said. ``It's based on the problems they've had.''
In three years in California, Diebold voting devices have awarded thousands of votes to the wrong candidates and broken down in two large counties during a presidential primary. Two successive state election chiefs, a Democrat and a Republican, both have rejected the TSx.
Former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley suggested criminal prosecution, citing misleading statements by Diebold Election Systems executives and ``reprehensible'' tactics. The state joined a false-claims suit against the company and won a $2.5 million settlement.
Last month, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson cited poor performance in state testing, with paper jams and software crashes in 28 percent of machines used in a mock election.
But Andrew isn't traveling the nation to talk about that or even to talk much about Diebold. So why is a ranking Democratic operative who was convinced Republicans ``stole'' the 2000 election working for Diebold and O'Dell, a battlestate fund-raiser for Bush-Cheney 2004?
- that paperless electronic voting is good for Democrats - and his connections in Democratic circles. ``Joseph's a smart guy and has a lot of contacts out there,'' said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington-based consultant on elections.
Andrew is tapping reliable Democratic constituents - civil-rights groups, minority groups such as the NAACP and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and such disability groups as the Council for the Blind.
They rallied in 2001 under the umbrella of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to rid the nation of reviled punchcard voting, and Andrew worked pro-bono as their lawyer. He delivered bipartisan support for the Help America Vote Act. Behind the act was the presumption that electronic voting was salvation from the dimpled and hanging chad and from having to resort to the Supreme Court to decide the presidency.
But Congress delayed 16 crucial months in setting up a new federal agency to oversee and enforce standards for the new voting equipment. By 2003, the debate over voting equipment shifted from civil-rights groups and their lawyers to computer scientists who argued that electronic voting was too vulnerable to breakdowns, errors and fraud, at least without any backup paper record of the vote.
So far, they've been winning. Despite resistance from Diebold and some other e-voting suppliers, lawmakers in 25 states have passed laws requiring a paper backup, for review by voters and in most cases recounts by elections officials. Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia are debating such a requirement.
While Ohio, Mississippi and Utah are considering large purchases of touchscreens, sales of paper-based optical scanning machines so far are outpacing sales of electronic-voting machines since the 2004 election.
In California at least, Andrew sees civil-rights leaders abdicating from a worthy cause. ``The great irony is, it's the progressives - my side of the aisle - who are against electronic voting but have the most to benefit from it.''
The odd couple of Diebold and Andrew have ``their work cut out for them,'' said Kim Alexander, president of nonprofit California Voter Foundation.
She acknowledges that electronic voting has plenty going for it, such larger type for elderly voters, ballot displays in multiple languages and an audio ballot for visually impaired voters.
``But the way it's been implemented has been irresponsible and reckless,'' Alexander said. ``What we've seen all across the country are numerous examples of glitches and problems. I wish that Diebold would put it's effort into making better equipment and making its paper trail work, rather than a PR campaign.''
-------------------- America's debt problem is a "sign of leadership failure"
We have "reckless fiscal policies"
America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership.
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