Vote machine probe includes Merced

SACRAMENTO -- The secretary of state's office is investigating whether a company that manufactures electronic voting machines sold the equipment to five counties -- including Merced -- after making unauthorized changes.

Possible sanctions include seeking up to $15 million in damages and asking a judge to prohibit Election Systems & Software Inc. from working in the state for up to three years.

Preventing the company from selling equipment in California could complicate voting as the state prepares for three elections in 2008 and as other electronic voting systems face increased scrutiny.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen is ex- pected to decide within weeks whether to penalize the company.

She is taking a hard line because of the company's "pattern of recalcitrance," secretary of state spokeswoman Nicole Winger said.

"This is a manufacturer that has continued to thumb their noses at the secretary of state and the voters of California," Winger said. "Secretary Bowen is putting her foot down."

The Omaha, Neb.-based company was the subject of a hearing Monday before a secretary of state's panel. Bowen is examining whether it sold uncertified machines used by disabled voters to Colusa, Marin, Merced, San Francisco and Solano counties.

Last year, the counties paid about $5,000 each for 972 upgraded machines.

Company officials told the panel that they did nothing wrong.

The machines had only inconsequential mechanical changes from the original equipment that had been certified by the state, and local election officials were properly notified, the company said.

"We're certainly trying to cooperate," company spokesman Ken Fields said after the hearing.

Even minor changes to a voting machine require new certification by Bowen's office, Winger said. She alleged that the company also sold outdated voting equipment to San Francisco and was months late in providing Bowen with information on a voting system used by Los Angeles County.