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Four-year-old Diebold glitch silently drops votes

Botches California county's results

Website security in corporate America

A four-year-old software glitch wiped out almost 200 votes from a small California county's November elections tally, causing officials to certify results that are now known to be incorrect.

The bug, which resides in specific versions of tabulation software sold by Premier Election Solutions, caused 197 paper ballots to mysteriously vanish from Humboldt County's final vote count. The error only came to light after a volunteer outfit using open-source software and an off-the-shelf paper scanner audited the results.

Premier, which until recently was known as Diebold Election Systems, first warned of the bug in 2004, but neither the Humboldt Country Registrar of Voters nor Debra Bowen, California's Secretary of State, said they were aware of the problem.

"Secretary Bowen is certainly concerned about Premier's carelessness with yet another elections product and thinks it's distressing that the company took virtually no action for years on this apparent defect," a press secretary for Bowen told The Times Standard of Eureka.

The flaw in GEMS, short for the Global Election Management System, can cause the first deck of ballots scanned to be erased when subsequent decks are deleted. Such deletions are common during the vote-counting process when errors are discovered. Diebold first warned customers of the problem in 2004 when it sent out an email providing workers with a method for working around the problem.

A former Humboldt County elections manager told the Times Standard he received the email, but never passed it on after he left to take a job as registrar of voters for a different county. Elections officials for two other California counties that also use version 1.18.19 of GEMS said they received the email and incorporated the work-around into their tabulation routine.

But for whatever reason, that information never trickled up to Bowen, who last year conducted a top-to-bottom review of all voting machines used in California to assess their security.

The botched results probably never would have come to light were it not for something called the Humboldt County Transparency Project, which passes every ballot cast through an optical scanner after it has been officially counted. The images are then made available online for anyone to view. Open source software allows users to sort ballots by precinct and recount tallies.

The bug in GEMS is separate from one uncovered in August when Premier warned government officials of a critical error in its touchscreen and optical scanning machines. Premier fessed up to the problem after first blaming them on human error and bugs in anti-virus software.

Wired.com offers a deep-dive into the glitch here, and additional coverage from The Times Standard is here. ®

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