Merced voting machines noncertified

MERCED -- Merced County bought more than $500,000 worth of electronic voting machines that were never certified for use, according to the secretary of state's office.

County election officials say it's uncertain how this will affect voting in November.

The blunder isn't the county's fault, says Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Four other coun- ties also bought the unapproved voting machines. And they did so because the company that sold them, Electronic Systems and Software Inc., didn't explain that they hadn't been certified.

Bowen says she's ready to pursue penalties of up to $15 million against the Omaha, Neb.-based company.

"Not only did ES&S sell machines to California counties that weren't state certified, it's clear the machines weren't even federally certified when the company delivered them," Bowen said in a statement released last week.

Merced County bought 104 of the uncertified machines called AutoMarks in early 2006 to accommodate blind and visually impaired voters, Merced County Auditor Stephen Jones said.

Jones said the machines have been used by only a handful of voters in the two elections since they were purchased.

Even so, he said the county is taking the allegations against ES&S seriously. Jones sent a letter Tuesday to the company demanding that it replace the uncertified machines free of charge with an earlier model that has been certified.

"Given the extremely tight time constraints facing the county in conducting the No- vember 2007 election, and given that it has been placed in this untenable position by the con- duct of ES&S, it is the duty of ES&S to cure its previous fail- ure," the letter says. " ... Other- wise, our attorneys will be in touch."

Jones said until he hears from ES&S on the demand, it's uncertain how the flub will affect the county's next election.

"If they have the certified machines available for us and agree to provide them, we should be OK," he said. "This caught us really off guard."

Jones' letter asked ES&S to turn over the certified machines within 10 days.

Statement, but no comment

A spokeswoman for ES&S declined to comment on the allegations Wednesday, but sent a statement vowing that the company will work with the state to resolve the issue.

"ES&S has the greatest respect for the federal and state certifi-cation processes," it said. "We have a long history of complying with those extensive and thorough examinations of voting technology."

ES&S sold nearly 1,000 uncertified machines in 2006 to Merced, Colusa, Marin, San Francisco and Solano counties. The machines, which cost about $5,000 each, have since received fed-eral approval for use but lack state approval, which the com-pany says it applied for seven weeks ago. Under California law, all voting equipment must be tested and cleared by state officials before it's used.

It's unlikely the machines won't meet certifiable standards, but until they're tested, state officials say, there's no way to be sure.

Bowen has scheduled a Sept. 20 public hearing in Sacramento to investigate the matter. ES&S officials are expected to testify, said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

If the hearing confirms Bowen's suspicion that ES&S knowingly misled the counties, she'll ask for stiff penalties that could include banning the company from doing business in California for up to three years, plus nearly $15 million in fines.

In addition to the AutoMarks, ES&S also provides the machines that scan and count the paper ballots cast by most Merced County voters. Those machines have been certified, but if Bowen issues a statewide ban on the company's products, Merced County could be forced to replace the entire system. "We'll have to wait and see," Jones said. "But obviously we'll comply with whatever the secretary of state decides."

Earlier this month, Bowen decided to decertify all but disability-access touch-screen voting systems, citing findings that the systems are vulnerable to possible hacking. Until this latest development, Merced has managed to avoid the clamor because only disabled voters in the county use the touch-screen system.

The ES&S Web site says the company has been in the elec- tion business for more than three decades and serves nearly half of all voting precincts na- tionwide.