The Diebold Factor 

Almost a full month after the August 3rd election, with its mammoth ballot that covered elective positions of crucial importance to Memphis and Shelby County, serious questions linger in the public mind concerning the results.

Four races, for county offices won by narrow voting margins, are being appealed by the losers. And, for reasons explored in two articles (see page 19) in this issue, the outcome of those cases is surrounded by a variety of uncertainties.

It is probable that no skullduggery or conscious subterfuge was indulged in to influence any of the results. The problem is that there are so many remaining issues with how last month's election was conducted, at so many different levels, that it is difficult to be absolutely certain as to just what those results were. Many have commented on the imprecise way in which precinct results have been reported -- forcing would-be analysts to extract them from the released vote totals by a kind of manual labor that went out of fashion even before paper ballots were perfected.

Another issue is the oddity -- for the second year in a row -- of seeing presumed election winners become losers as late boxes are tabulated. Compounding the problem this year was the fact that the crucial boxes, the ones altering the results, had been received at the same time as others but were unaccountably tallied last.

Software problems stemming from the use of the county's brand-new Diebold voting machines appear also to have been responsible for snafus in early voting, whereby some voters were given the wrong ballots. Several cases of this sort were confirmed, and it has to be borne in mind that many voters may have proceeded to vote for the wrong offices -- mainly in district-specific legislative races -- without noticing such errors.

All of this would seem to vindicate critics of the machines manufactured by Diebold. All five election commissioners agree that Diebold supplied software that was insufficient to prevent the early-voting errors. And the company seems to be implicated in the poorly timed precinct reporting as well. It should be noted that Davidson County (Nashville), like Shelby County, experienced a record-sized ballot this year and did so with new, untested machines. But the ESS machines used in Davidson County resulted in none of the problems experienced here. Indeed, TV commentators there were reporting and analyzing precinct returns on election night. In Shelby, we're still waiting.

Earlier this year, when Diebold was selected over ESS as Shelby County's designated vendor, a clear majority of the Election Commission favored the company's product. But because that vote, based in part on staff recommendations, was made on the basis of company representations that have since proved false, it is doubtful now that Diebold would get a single commission vote.

We're stuck with the machines now, though, and the very least Diebold can do is bear the cost of a refitting process before the election in November. To its credit, the Election Commission has threatened to sue if the company doesn't.


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