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Sunday, August 24, 2008

10 bucks says it's not going to be Republican votes that are dropped
Posted by Jill | 5:51 PM
Signs That the Fix Is In: Part One in a continuing series.

Voting machines in 34 states may "drop votes" when the votes are uploaded to a central computer:

A major voting machine maker has notified its customers in 34 states that a programming error discovered during testing may cause votes to be dropped when they are uploaded to a computer server from the machines' vote-holding memory cards.

Premier Election Solutions Inc. supplies touch-screen voting systems as well as scanners for paper ballots to large and small customers throughout the nation. The error communicated in a Tuesday product advisory occurs when multiple memory cards are being uploaded at the same time, and it is more likely to occur in jurisdictions that have several voters and use touch-screen voting systems, said Premier spokesman Chris Riggall.

The Allen, Texas-based Premier is a unit of North Canton-based Diebold Inc.

More voters and more touch-screen machines mean more memory cards. Each individual touch-screen machine has a memory card, and scanning machines that read thousands of paper ballots each only have one card.

In Ohio, where the glitch was discovered, it caused at least 1,000 total votes to be dropped in nine of the 44 counties that used Premier's equipment during the March presidential primary and previous elections. The dropped votes were discovered within several hours by election officials who noticed the memory cards weren't being read properly. Workers re-fed the cards into the server until they worked, and the votes were added to the overall vote totals.

Errors that did not produce dropped votes were discovered in three other counties.

The company had previously blamed the problem solely on complications with an antivirus software. Officials in Ohio's Butler County kept testing the machines and claimed that there was a problem with the machines themselves. That was later verified by Premier's own testing, which prompted the company to send out a product advisory to all of its customers.

The company said that antivirus software can cause the error, but that the programming glitch can produce the error even when the software isn't used.

"We are communicating to customers around the country, making sure that we're answering any questions concerning it," Riggall said.

Ohio will continue to use the Premier machines in the Nov. 4 election. Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said identifying the cause of the problem will enable the state to prepare election officials to watch for the problem and correct it should it resurface. Premier said in its product advisory that the problem can be corrected as long as officials monitor whether the memory cards are being uploaded, and if they are not, reload them until they are.

Yeah, right. And I am Marie of Rumania.

I can't believe that I'm about to be out of work after next Friday, and the people who designed, managed, and built this POS's still have jobs. Even more appalling is that my department has a crackerjack QA guy -- the kind of tester who can find any problem, no matter how small -- and HE's going to be out of work after next Friday. Our problem is at least attributable to loss of grant funding, not bad management. Diebold's problem is partisan management, crappy design, crappy programming, and crappy testing. The fish rots from the head. The problem is that the future of our country is in the hands of people who either don't know what they're doing or don't care.

MONDAY UPDATE: I was thinking about this while trying to drop off to sleep last night. They can call the company Premier Election Solutions all they want to, it's still Diebold. And I checked their web site, and they are still using the same Global Election Management System (GEMS) that Bev Harris demonstrated a few years ago here:

We know from other documentation, from the icons next to the database, and from the database interface itself that the voting machines themselves use Microsoft Access database files to store votes. We know from the article that there's an upload process that takes each of these Access databases from each voting machine in each precinct in each state that uses them and stores them to a central computer somewhere. What we don't know is what kind of database is on the central computer. But I would speculate that if votes are being dropped when a sizable number of machines are uploading at the same time, we're probably also looking at an Access database.

Why do I say that?

Because even Microsoft says that while in theory, the Access JET engine can handle up to 255 concurrent users, the company states in their document "When to Migrate from Microsoft Access to Microsoft SQL Server":

Microsoft Access can technically allow 255 connections for each database. However, this is a theoretical limit and cannot be attained in an organization. In reality, the number of connections or users that an Access database can support is dictated by how well the application was designed and implemented.
For example, a professionally designed and well-tuned Access application can support up to 20 concurrent users who are updating data with good performance. Databases that are used largely for running read-only reports can scale up to about 100 users.
Unfortunately, few Access databases are well-designed and implemented with best practices. This is because most Access databases are created by beginners or power users who do not have the experience or knowledge to create professional applications. They are built over time, and new features and data models are added as needed. The result is that many solutions don’t reliably support more than a few users.

Let's not even get into how easy it is to alter the database on the local voting machine. But if votes are being lost at upload time, that tells me that the central database is NOT SQL Server, an enterprise database that can handle high-traffic application and virtually unlimited concurrent users. Votes lost at upload time tell me that the central database simply concatenates records from the individual machine into another Access database. Those of you who are techies or power users know what I'm talking about. Those of you who aren't need only visualize a high-traffic bridge at rush hour. If one lane is closed, more traffic has to fit through the remaining lane. And only so many cars can fit on the bridge -- so if there are too many cars, they have to wait their turn or crash into the car in front of them. Either way, simply barrelling through is not going to take you to your destination.

And if the poll workers don't see this problem and keep trying, the entire machine's tabulated votes could be lost.

I worked on an application three years ago that involved just this kind of upload process of records from databases at various sites to a central table. I didn't write the upload process, but I had to support it when things went wrong. It was a PC-based survey application, built with a third party application that stored its data in Access databases. In this case, this third-party application created an export file, which was then uploaded via an internet connection to a central database. There were no more than a few dozen sites, but the master central database was -- SQL Server, NOT Access. Now if a smallish application like this, developed by a couple of academic centers, used a scalable, secure database, you'd think that the allegedly smart people at Diebold/Premier would know not to use what is essentially a desktop database for storage of something as important as your vote.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm sure not betting against you. This whole voting machine business is downright infuriating. Diebold heads ought to roll.

Blogger casey said...
As anyone with a brain should know these machines are like the Bush v Gore supreme court decision only one side can be harmed if the machines work like an ATM. An honest vote count is not needed nor desired. Ever since electronic voting machines of this caliber have been used the (para)phrase comes to mind. It is not who votes that count but who counts the vote.

Blogger missy said...
Access? We can barely get Access to work for our small 5-person company and they're using it as their database program?

Jeebus. This is as bad as the FBI bad-guy database being unsearchable.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You and I have both been designing IT systems for awhile. I bet you never got away with designing one that works as badly as this one seems to.

Worse, they KNOW it's broken. Well FIX IT! You've got 10 weeks. This "your results might not be reliable" is beyond BS...

Lock the programmers in the building until it works. I'm sure you've pulled all nighters when one of your system's didn't work right.

And we KNOW what's wrong with this one. I suspect your analysis is right on!

I see elsewhere that Ohio is suing Diebold over this. I'd really like to hear Diebold's defense. "But your honor. It's only computer software, and we KNOW that never works right [put a MicroSoft executive on the stand to testify here!]. We told them it had a bug, but they went ahead and used it anyway".

And FWIW, in 10 weeks you can print paper ballots. So why are we even having this discussion? Unless, of course, Ohio doesn't really want to have an honest election!

Diebold makes ATM machines. I suspect they KNOW how to build secure systems. Do I hear "lowest bidder" and "good enough for government work"?