After the controversial 2000 Presidential election, the U.S. embarked on a campaign to replace paper ballots and their infamous hanging chads with electronic voting. But the new systems, many based on touch screens similar to bank ATMs, have become the bane of computer experts and some political activists on the Left.
Critics say the systems are riddled with security leaks that could allow corrupt companies or polling officials to steal elections. Now the complicated ownership of one of the nation's top three voting-equipment companies has attracted a new cadre of doubters.
The company, Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., sells machines in California, Illinois, and 18 other states. It has come under fire because its majority shareholders are Venezuelan. In the colorful imaginations of some, the Sequoia story is a tale that ends with Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez, a foe of the Bush Administration, in a position to manipulate American elections.
In Washington, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) has asked the Treasury Dept. to explain Sequoia's sale to the Venezuelans last year. "It doesn't seem like the deal...was vetted by our government, and I want to know why," she said in a May 5 letter.
Following a contentious Apr. 7 hearing on Sequoia's role in a recent Chicago primary, city Alderman Edward M. Burke, a relatively conservative Democrat, said: "We've stumbled on what we think could be an international conspiracy to subvert the electoral process in the United States." Burke offered no proof, and despite similar concerns expressed by other Chicago pols, the city and Cook County will continue to use Sequoia equipment.
Sequoia officials insist that neither Chávez nor the Venezuelan government has had any link to the company. "There is absolutely, unequivocally no connection," insists Sequoia Vice-President Michelle M. Shafer. But Sequoia's ownership is elaborate. The Oakland (Calif.) business was acquired for $16 million in March, 2005, by Boca Raton (Fla.)-based Smartmatic Corp. Smartmatic is owned by a Netherlands holding company, which in turn is owned by Smartmatic International Group, based in Curaçao.
Sequoia says the Curaçao company's principal shareholders are its Venezuelan chief executive, Antonio Mugica, and his family. A large minority stake is owned by other Venezuelans. "We were trying to make a fluid company that could operate internationally," says Shafer.
The Venezuelan connection has fueled speculation among bloggers and others in the anti-electronic-voting world about Smartmatic's role in a controversial 2004 election to recall Chávez. The company received a $91 million contract from Venezuela's national electoral council to conduct that vote, which Chávez eventually won. While Chávez opponents claimed fraud, no U.S. critics have linked Smartmatic to corruption, and the company strongly denies it engaged in any.
The U.S. criticism of Sequoia and its owners is just the latest spat in a nasty battle over electronic voting. Most of the conflict concerns security problems. "These major security holes have been there for a long time, and they are not going away," says Holly Jacobson, co-director of Voter Action. Her group has challenged electronic voting around the country in races won by both Republicans and Democrats.
Still, the new machines are catching on, thanks in part to more than $2 billion in federal funds. The number of counties using electronic systems has more than tripled since 2000, to 1,050. And public opinion surveys suggest that most voters like them.
By Howard Gleckman