October 23, 2009

‘The computer says so’ is not a good answer

Posted in Diebold, Elections, Humboldt county CA, paper ballots, voter verified paper ballots, voting tagged , , at 8:36 pm by bluebanshee

In Humboldt County California, Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich has not had good luck relying on her computer system(s) to give her accurate information. This has created problems.

In November 2008 she found out that the Diebold optical scan system she was using was capable of making an entire batch of counted ballots disappear into thin air without a trace … poof! No warning message … no tellltale evidence in the computer log … just poof, the batch was gone.

It turned out to be a known bug in the Diebold software that might only be avoided with special “workaround” procedures – or at least, that is what representatives of Diebold told her when she contacted them about the vanishing votes. Crnich found out about the problem because of a post-election audit conducted by local activists – not because of any notification from Diebold.

So Crnich did what a conscientious election official might do – she decided to switch to a new vendor and spent recent months getting her brand new system from Hart InterCivic ready for this November’s election.

Again, she hit a speedbump of bad information in her computer system. This time it was the local Eureka school board race that was the problem. Her new system was coded for an election in only Ward 1 rather than at-large. During the process of importing election information into the new system, Crnich said, something happened and the Eureka school board race was inadvertently and incorrectly changed from an at-large race to a ward election. There hadn’t been a contested Eureka school board race in 6 years and no one at the elections office had the institutional memory about how it was supposed to be set up.

As a result of this computer error the two candidates for the at-large seat on the Eureka school board were given incorrect information and planned their campaigns accordingly. http://www.times-standard.com/localnews/ci_13549788

Eureka City Schools school board candidate Gaye Gerdts had a plan to win the hearts and votes of the roughly 7,000 people living in her 1st Ward.

The only problem was, unbeknownst to Gerdts — and apparently to the Humboldt County Elections Office, which Gerdts had relied on for her campaign information — the school board seat is elected at large, by voters throughout the school district, not just from Gerdts’ ward.

”As a first-time candidate, I was given wrong information,” Gerdts said in a statement sent to the Times-Standard. “When the Elections Office can’t be trusted to provide accurate guidance, the democratic process is jeopardized. This mistake has thrown my whole campaign into turmoil. Overnight, my voter pool went from 7,000 to 27,000.”

Incumbent John Fullerton was impacted differently.

Having served on the board since 2001, Fullerton said he knew the race would be decided district-wide, but said he had planned an advertising blitz for last week, right when he thought absentee ballots would start showing up. But the Elections Office had printed absentee ballots in error, only including the Eureka City School Board race on ballots from the 1st Ward rather than on ballots in the entire school district. Elections officials then had to correct the ballots, delaying their being sent by about a week.

”It did cause me a little bit of inconvenience in that I had started my advertising this week, assuming that everyone would be getting their absentee ballots,” Fullerton said. “I kind of feel like I’ve wasted some money on advertising by advertising too early.”

Other candidates may have been similarly inconvenienced since corrected absentee ballots were sent out and arrived later than originally scheduled.

Carolyn Crnich is unhappy about the situation. She and her staff had worked diligently all summer trying to make sure that the transition to a new computer system was smooth. Despite her best intentions, she had had a bumpy ride in the run-up to the November 3 election.

”We literally spent all summer doing this, and it’s really disappointing to me that something as big as this whole school district would have happened this way,” Crnich said, adding that she knows the error, and the delay in getting absentee ballots out, has inconvenienced candidates in other races, too.

”We tried so hard to make sure everything was right, and we just missed it,” she said.

Perhaps the lesson here is to not trust mission-critical election information without paper backup. It is not enough to tell everyone: “But it’s in the computer!” as if that means it is the gospel-truth. Sometimes computers are just plain wrong. Both times when Crnich relied on computers for information she got bad information.

Crnich is to be commended for ditching the Diebold system that made votes disappear from the count in 2008. However, continuing to trust what the computer says has proved to be a bad strategy.  Let’s hope Crnich has learned her lesson about trusting computers.



  1. Yes, software can be buggy!

  2. admin said,

    nice blogs!!!

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