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Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Hawaii State Seal

Firm admits
errors in counting
votes for Hawaii,

Hawaii is negotiating an
eight-year contract
with ES&S.

By Jessica Fargen
Associated Press


OMAHA, Neb. -- Despite being blamed for delays in Venezuela's national elections and problems in Hawaii and other U.S. elections, Election Systems and Software Inc. says its track record is good.

Venezuelan officials have accused the Omaha-based voting equipment provider of jeopardizing the South American country's largest election in history.

In the United States, four states have reported problems with equipment supplied by the company.

Faulty ES&S machines used in Hawaii's 1998 elections forced that state's first-ever recount.

The company paid $250,000 to settle contract disputes and $280,000 to recount the ballots after complaints about poorly trained poll watchers, malfunctioning voting machines and spoiled ballots.

Nonetheless, the state and ES&S have been negotiating a new eight-year contract to count ballots in the next four elections, said Dwayne Yoshina, Hawaii's chief election officer. Two other potential bidders dropped out of competition.

Considering that ES&S counts about 100 million ballots each year, a handful of errors in thousands of equipment and software is not bad, said Mike Limas, senior vice president.

"Elections are fairly complex and when you are running several of them a month, you are going to have the opportunity for people to have mistakes or delays," he said.

The Election Center, a nonprofit group based in Houston that investigates election failures, said mistakes do happen among the fewer than 10 U.S. election service companies that provide the high-tech services similar to that which ES&S provides.

"They have made systems that operate well, but they are not perfect," said Doug Lewis, the center's executive director. "We can't find a way to make any system perfect, yet."

Because of glitches last year in ES&S voting machines and ballots, voters in Gulfport, Miss., may have selected the wrong candidates for some offices. And an ES&S scanner kicked out incorrect ballots in a Charleston, W.Va., last month, while ballots supplied by the company in a Norfolk, Va., election last year were defective.

In all of the cases, the problems were blamed on malfunctioning equipment, and the company compensated its clients or fixed the problem.

Most election officials realize that errors do occur, Limas said. ES&S's main competitor, Global Election Systems, of McKinney, Texas, also has supplied faulty election equipment and software.

ES&S has felt the most fallout from its problems in Venezuela, where that nation's highest court suspended the May 28 elections because of technical glitches in the cards used to tabulate votes.

Dozens of protesters have chanted "Gringos get out!" at ES&S technicians working in Venezuela's election offices. The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has protested the treatment by secret police of ES&S personnel, including alleged verbal and physical abuse and threats.

Venezuela sent an air force jet to Omaha to fetch computers and experts in a last-ditch effort to fix the problem before the delay was ordered.

Venezuela's president and the head of the nation's election board accused ES&S of trying to destabilize the country's electoral process. ES&S denied that, saying 11,200 changes by election officials in posting thousands of candidates for 6,200 offices were hindering the firm's work.

A former election council president said mistakes by Venezulan authorities resulted in the delay, but he also blamed ES&S.

While there have been glitches along the way, ES&S has rapidly expanded since it was formed in 1997 when American Information Systems, Inc. bought the election division of BRC Holdings, Inc, and three other companies.

American Information Systems was founded in 1980 in Omaha, and initially provided equipment for elections in Lincoln, Dodge and Merrick counties.

ES&S now serves 2,500 jurisdictions in the United States and abroad. The company employs 350 people and has projected net revenues this year of $100 million.

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