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Is the fix in? County administrator questioned on new hires

East County Californian (2007-05-24) Miriam Raftery

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More Info: Election Integrity, Election Team

By Miriam Raftery

The East County Californian

May 24, 2007

Citizens sounded off in public comment and rallied outside the County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to protest the hiring of the new Registrar of Voters and her assistant.

“The hiring practices that brought (Mischelle) Townsend, (Michael) Vu and (Deborah) Seiler together reflect poor judgment and another example of San Diego County’s practice of ignoring the input of local citizens on the issue of election integrity,” Jim Hamilton of Secure and Accurate Elections (SAE) said in a press conference outside the San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday. “The widespread publicity these problems are generating is a disservice to taxpayers and an embarrassment.”

Citizens say if Walt Ekard, the County’s Chief Administrative Officer, wants to convince voters that he cares about protecting the integrity of votes, he had better go back to the drawing board.

A promotion and a series of dubious new hires are raising serious questions among voting reform advocates, who argue that San Diego has put foxes in charge of the electoral henhouse by bringing in Seiler, a former voting machine sales representative to run the Registrar of Voters office — along with Vu, a former Ohio election official who oversaw a presidential recount in which two of his employees were convicted of felony election-rigging.

Seiler and Vu did not respond to requests to talk with The East County Californian last week.

Election integrity experts argue that secret, proprietary software in voting machines and tabulators used to count votes should not be trusted. Hack tests last year confirmed that a Diebold system in Florida could be rigged to flip votes in less than one minute, with no password required.

A single memory card from just one voting machine, when placed into a central tabulator on election night, could then change votes for an entire county. Major security flaws have been found in systems by other manufacturers as well, including both touch screen and optical scan voting systems.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen last week announced that she has ordered a “top to bottom” assessment of virtually all voting machines statewide. That makes California the first state in the nation to conduct “red team hack tests” to determine the systems can be penetrated by hackers to change or delete votes. Those tests, which begin this week, are due to be completed in July.

So why did San Diego suddenly announce plans to spend $5 million to buy additional Diebold voting machines — without waiting to see if test results might decertify the equipment for use in future elections?

County officials say the decision was made because of a shortage of voting machines in some precincts. But critics believe that untrustworthy machines with secret software are being foisted upon the public.

Psephos, a new citizens’ action committee, is dedicated to preserving the right of citizens —not machines — to count votes.

Two years ago, The East County Californian reported how then-Registrar of Voters Mike Haas sent unsecured voting machines with programmable memory cards home with poll workers and violated the law by hooking up the central vote-counting tabulator to the Internet on election eve, according to his own admission in an interview as well as statements by witnesses who watched the vote count.

Haas solved that problem in the next election – by having a citizen arrested for trying to observe votes being counted. His continued defiance of election regulations made San Diego the object of ridicule by national media figures – including CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who asked, “How can this be happening in a democracy?”

Haas actions finally drew the attention of County officials earlier this year and he was given a promotion. Haas now oversees multiple County departments, including the Registrar’s office.

Who did Ekard hire to replace Haas?

Deborah Seiler, a former Diebold sales representative, sold 1,200 voting machines to Solano County that were found to be uncertified, costing that county $400,000 for additional equipment. Soon after, she went to work as Solano County’s Assistant Registrar of Voters before being hired as the new Registrar of Voters in San Diego, County —where she has also sold voting machines to County officials which also did not meet state or federal certification requirements.

Mischelle Townsend, appointed by Ekard to serve as San Diego’s interim Registrar of Voters, had an equally troublesome past. Described by Los Angeles City Beat as “the state’s most outspoken champion of e-voting machines,” Townsend quit her job as Riverside’s Registrar amid controversy over possible “manipulation of those machines,” City Beat reported.

Townsend halted a vote count to determine whether a run-off race would be required in a close primary race. Later revelations indicated that when campaign representatives for a Republican candidate showed up to observe the vote count, they were astounded to find two Sequoia employees huddled around vote tabulation computers — with no County employees in sight. One observer reported seeing a Sequoia representative pocket a memory card — and refuse to answer questions.

The candidate whose workers witnessed these events did not win enough votes to obtain a run-off election, according to the machine count. Financial records later revealed that Townsend took money from Sequoia to appear in a promotional video for the vendor.

Now Eckard has named Michael Vu as San Diego’s new Assistant Registrar of Voters. According to the Cleveland Plains Dealer, Vu was “forced out of his job” as elections chief for Cuyahoga County in Ohio.

Two election officials under Vu’s watch were convicted of felony election rigging in the 2004 presidential recount. By law, precincts for the 3 percent recount were required to be randomly selected. Instead, the Cuyahoga officials spent three days behind closed doors doing an illegal pre-count to identify precincts that would produce “correct” results and avoid triggering a full hand-recount. They were busted because a witness videotaped the officials dropping off ballot boxes pre-sorted into “Bush” and “Kerry” stacks – and admitting on camera that the 3 percent sample was not random.

Vu has stated that the pair “followed longtime procedures and [did] nothing wrong.” But Ohio Judge Corrigan told Vu’s two convicted employees, “It seems unlikely that your superiors didn’t know.” Some election reform insiders suggest that an indictment of Vu could be forthcoming.

Moreover, a memo from Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William D. Mason to an assistant prosecutor reveals that Vu sought advice from counsel prior to the recount but failed to admit that he had already conducted secret and illegal pre-counts.

“Director Vu admits to counsel that prior to the scheduled official recount of Dec. 16 and 17, 2004, the sealed ballot boxes were opened, ballots were looked at, and recounts occurred. Director Vu was advised that nothing permits the foregoing,” the memo states. Vu later asked advice on how to respond to media and was informed by counsel that “there could be no response to such questions” because of Vu’s admissions and that “Director Vu was again advised that it was wrong.”

Vu’s entire elections board has recently been removed by Ohio’s new Secretary of State on essentially malfeasance grounds. Elections overseen by Vu also gained notoriety for losing dozens of memory cards containing vote counts, purging many valid voters off voter rolls, and shortages of voting machines that forced some voters to stand in line up to seven hours during the 2004 presidential election.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Ekard defended his hiring of Vu and Seiler.

“Election integrity is paramount to me and this board. These two people I believe have served honorably in their prior roles,” he said, eliciting derisive laughs and boos from the crowd. “I have heard you, and I disagree.”

Election integrity activists expressed frustration over a County charter that prohibits Supervisors from interfering in the work of its top administrative officer. Following Tuesday’s meeting, Psephos and SAE announced a review of the County charter is underway “in response to citizen concerns about the lack of accountability and improper delegation of power to county elections officials.”

Others suggested that Ekard should be fired.

“Ekard is the unelected dictator of the County,” said Brina-Rae Schuchman, election integrity chair with San Diego for Democracy. “This board claims it cannot interfere with the manager by law…That’s a law that should be changed.”

Nationally-prominent election attorney Paul Lehto noted that our Constitution was founded on principals that include fair and honest elections. “Elected officials must be accountable,” he observed. “That means we have the right to throw the bums out…but we can’t do that if you’ve got a crooked bum in office who will use the machines to cheat.”

A Zogby poll shows that voters overwhelmingly support open, observable elections, said Lehto, who called on San Diego officials to create a new model of openness so that local office-holders could take pride in winning elections legitimately.

“We believe that secrecy invites corruption,” Lehto concluded. “Now what would be the reason to count the votes in secret?”

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Title Is the fix in? County administrator questioned on new hires
Publisher East County Californian
Author Miriam Raftery
Pub Date 2007-05-24
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Note Voters' Watchdog series. Features Michael Vu
Keywords Election Integrity, Election Team
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Topic revision: r3 - 2018-06-19, RaymondLutz
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