Company accused of moving too slowly to update machines
By Patrick Hoge
Published April 20th 2005 in San Francisco Chronicle
Advocates of instant-runoff voting say Alameda County officials and Diebold Election Systems are dragging their feet, preventing a majority winner in a current Oakland City Council mail election and slowing efforts for instant-runoff voting in Berkeley.
In addition, several dozen election-reform advocates, including some local government officials, protested outside Alameda County offices in Oakland on Tuesday against what they said was an attempt by Diebold to overcharge the county for implementing instant-runoff voting.
"Diebold is holding the county hostage to try to extort money,'' said Dave Heller, a co-coordinator of the successful campaign for instant-runoff voting in Berkeley, where it was approved by voters last year.
A Diebold official denied that the company was moving slowly or inflating prices.
"We're certainly not holding any part of this process up,'' said Steve Knecht, the company's California sales manager. He said a $2 million figure to reconfigure the county's election system to allow for instant runoffs was a rough estimate, and that company officials are doing a more thorough analysis that should be made public within a few weeks.
Alameda County Registrar Bradley Clark, who wrote a letter March 15 asking Diebold to develop a plan for implementing ranked-choice voting, said San Francisco spent about the same amount getting its instant-runoff voting system running in November's election.
Rodney Brooks, chief of staff to Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, called the $2 million figure "ridiculous.'' Brooks contended that the company given the contract for the county's election equipment, Global Election Systems, had said it could be easily converted to ranked-choice voting. That firm was purchased by Diebold, which assumed the contract.
But Knecht countered that Global only told the county that touch screens could be easily adapted, not the entire system. A conversion would be complicated because it would require state and federal certification, but neither state nor federal agencies provide guidelines for instant-runoff voting.
About a year ago, complaints from Clark about the performance of Alameda County's Diebold electronic machines led to a state and county false claims lawsuit that resulted in the Texas-based company paying a $2.6 million settlement in November.
Advocates say ranked-choice voting avoids costly runoff elections and makes elections more fair. Under the system, voters rank choices for the office being decided and if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated and the votes are redistributed by rank until someone receives a simple majority of votes.
In 2000, San Leandro voters approved a measure allowing the use of instant-runoff voting but recently spent $80,000 on a special runoff election for a City Council district, San Leandro City Councilman Tony Santos said.
"That money was wasted,'' said Santos. "It could have been used to pay for a police officer or something.''
Oakland voters in 2002 approved the use of instant-runoff voting to fill City Council vacancies, and Berkeley voters approved it for all races in 2004.
Kenneth Mostern, who ran the campaign for the instant-runoff measure in Berkeley and now runs a private election management firm, said he recently paid a company $55,000 to create the system that was used in an election for officers of the KPFA-FM radio station, which has 96,000 voting members.
Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington said the county's failure to implement instant-runoff voting means that the will of a majority of voters in the ongoing special election for City Council in Oakland's District 2 will likely be denied.
"That is a tragedy and an injustice,'' Worthington said. "We need to put increased pressure on Diebold.''