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Sequoia attack dogs kill review into e-voting discrepancies

'Your investigation into fair democracy infringes our rights'

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Updated New Jersey elections officials have scrapped plans to inspect electronic voting machines suspected of malfunctioning during the recent presidential primary election, following legal threats by their manufacturer, Sequoia Voting Systems.

Officials from New Jersey's Union County had requested the audit by Princeton University computer scientist Ed Felten after finding discrepancies that raised doubts about the accuracy of the results returned in the February election. Earlier this week, they reversed course after Sequoia threatened legal action if the county turned the machines over to Felten. The company's attorneys argued the independent review would violate its trade-secret rights,

The episode underscores constraints placed on government agencies that use e-voting machines to conduct elections. It's by no means clear that Sequoia's legal claims are valid, but in this case the issue is moot. Sequoia's threats were adequate in shutting down a key part of an investigation into what went wrong. It's doubtful that suppliers of less sophisticated paper ballots would have been able to exert that kind of influence on officials charged with carrying out free and fair elections.

Felten - an expert on the hardware and software using in e-voting machines - has already demonstrated how to hack Diebold e-voting equipment to alter voting results.

In a statement on its website, Sequoia argued the machines have already undergone a "complete and independent review" by federally accredited consultants. Additional tests have been conducted by state authorities, including those in California, Colorado and Illinois. "Sequoia does not support any and all unauthorized activities that violate or circumvent our product licensing agreements," the company stated.

Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi told the New Jersey Star-Ledger she shut down the review on the advice of attorneys. An attorney for the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey, the statewide clerks' association that was to hire Felten, said: "We don't have access to the machines, so we can't do anything."

Union County requested the review after discovering anomalies in results from the February 5 election. On some machines, the paper-tape backups showing how many Democrats and Republicans casted ballots didn't match the same data contained on cartridge printouts. Officials from four other counties later identified the same errors. According to BlackBoxVoting, all five counties use the AVC Advantage, a touch-screen machine in use since 1988.

Sequoia has said the errors were the result of mistakes by poll workers, but absent a thorough investigation, it remained unclear how they could be sure of that determination. Now, thanks to the footwork Sequoia's legal department, none of us will.

Update

Felten has published a detailed rebuttal to Sequoia's explaination that the discrepancies were the result of clerical errors. He summarizes: "An investigation is needed — an independent investigation, done by someone not chosen by Sequoia, not paid by Sequoia, and not reporting to Sequoia."

Also, Sequoia has announced it is undertaking a "comprehensive external review" of the AVC Advantage machine that involves a federally accredited consulting company called Wyle Laboratories of Huntsville, Alabama, and an independent firm known as Kwaidan Consulting of Houston, Texas.

"We are confident that the review will show that Sequoia’s product bulletin issued recently to our Advantage customers does indeed explain how the reporting issue that occurred during the February 5th Primary Elections happened, and how it can be prevented," the company says.

Sequoia didn't describe the scope or methodology of the review and didn't say whether New Jersey officials would be able to participate.

Finally, InfoWorld is reporting that hackers have attacked a section of Sequoia's website containing a detailed explanation of the voting machine errors. Sites Felten, InfoWorld says the content from the company's Ballot Blog was replaced by a message saying the page was hacked and naming the individuals responsible.

At the time of this update, the hackers' message no longer appeared, but the content had not been restored. ®

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