Big Firms Elect Out of U.S. Voting Systems Market


Big Firms Elect Out of U.S. Voting Systems Market

By Nick Wakeman
Staff Writer

Publishers Depot

Rev. Al Sharpton has complained about New York City's voting system.

Although technology holds out the promise of more secure, accurate and faster election results, the market for electronic voting systems is so fragmented, and always will be, that it doesn't even register with most information technology companies.

Computerized systems are being developed and installed in the United States, but work is not being done by companies such as Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., or Sun Microsystems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. Both have built large, nationwide voting systems in other countries.

But in the United States, there is no national election system or even statewide systems. Instead, each county, and there are 3,137 counties in the United States, is responsible for its own system. Neighboring counties in the same state can have vastly different systems.

This fragmented market has opened the way, however, for smaller companies such as Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc. The Jamestown, N.Y., company, which has 25 employees, last year won the plum of the election systems business - developing a computerized system for New York City.

Sequoia Pacific has seen its sales double since 1994, said Robert Click, general manager of the company. He expects the company to grow at about 10 percent a year.

His company is the second largest developer of election systems in the United States. The largest, Business Records Corp., Dallas, has been bought by the No. 3 maker, American Information Systems Inc., Omaha, Neb. AIS officials did not return phone calls.

Figures on the growth of the overall market are hard to come by because each locality is responsible for its own election system, sources said.

Most of the time voting booths sit in storage in government warehouses, largely forgotten, but let the systems break down, and there can be hell to pay, or at least plenty of bad publicity.

That is what New York City has learned and continues to learn as it tries to update its election system, one of the biggest in the country with 7,000 voting booths.

The city had to reverse its decision to hold a runoff between the Rev. Al Sharpton and Ruth Messinger for the Democratic nomination for mayor after the city finished counting paper ballots.

The city relies on electro-mechanical voting booths - the newest ones of which are at least 20 years old. But because of breakdowns, many precincts, particularly in Brooklyn, had to use the paper ballots, which are counted by hand.

The paper ballots pushed Messinger over the top, but now the Board of Elections faces a lawsuit by Sharpton and angry calls from voters complaining about inaccuracies.

"Everybody wants to know why we don't have the electronic voting system yet," said Chris Long, coordinator for New York's Office of Voter Assistance.

New York has known it has had a problem for at least 10 years, and last year awarded a $60 million contract to Sequoia Pacific. Each voting booth will be a computer with an electronic tape that is transported to a central computer for processing, Click said.

While New York's recent problems are bigger and more headline-grabbing than most, the city's woes are still fairly typical of the pattern localities follow, said Doug Webb, a senior consultant in the information technology practice of SRI Consulting Inc., Menlo Park, Calif.

"Eighty percent of the time there is pain" before a new voting system is put in place, Webb said. New York City hired SRI to help land its new system, which will include 7,000 computerized voting booths and should be completed next year.

Only a handful of jurisdictions want to improve the voting systems simply to take advantage of new technology, he said.

Click estimated that less than 5 percent of the 3,000 plus counties look for a new system each year. The average system is dwarfed by the New York job, he said. A usual job for Sequoia is 500 to 700 voting booths. The average system will cost between $3.5 million and $4 million, he said.

While technology holds out the hope of cheaper and more accurate elections with results known much more quickly, one overriding trait holds the market back - no one wants to spend the money, said Michael Ian Shamos, a Pennsylvania attorney who is an election examiner for the states of Pennsylvania, Texas and Nevada. "Elections are something the public takes for granted," he said. "It is always a fight to get more money."

The result is that too often elections systems are "very creaky and held together with spit and baling wire," Shamos said.

Electro-mechanical voting systems where the voter pulls a lever next to candidates' names, are still widely used even though manufacturing of new equipment stopped in the 1970s, he said. Several companies refurbish old machines.

Paper ballots are still used in many jurisdictions, but population growth is making hand-counting of votes inefficient, said Ardiss Schmitt, coordinator of the National Association of County Election Officials, Clerks and Recorders in Colorado Springs, Colo.

There are five different types of election systems. The two noncomputerized systems are paper ballots and the lever machines, both of which are on the way out, Shamos said. The computer-based systems are punch cards and "mark sense" ballots (think college SATs) that are read by a central computer; and the direct recording equipment where the computer is the voting booth such as the system New York is building, Shamos said.

Shamos said the market for election systems is growing, especially as the lever systems are phased out. But he expected small companies to continue to dominate the market.

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