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Transcript - September 8, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW...

Americans like to share our values of democracy with the rest of the world, but the rest of the world may do well to avoid one key part of our democratic system: the way we record and count votes on election day.

It's been nearly six years since election day 2000: a tight presidential race, voting machines that failed to do the job and a recount system that was sketchy at best.

Enter congress, which ordered new voting technology nationwide, a.s.a.p.

In most places, the new machines are in, but whether they're up to their crucial task remains a troubling question after what we witnessed on one recent primary day.

Our story begins in Michigan, but as we'll see, what happened in Michigan could be coming to a polling place near you. Michelle Smawley produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: Oakland County Michigan. It's a wealthy enclave—with the highest per capita income in the state. It's made up of a patchwork of small cities and townships. More than a million people live here——this one county has more people than some entire U.S. states.

We paid a visit to Oakland County on Primary Day in August to see new electronic voting technology in action—fulfilling a requirement set by Congress. We were curious to see how it was working out.

It was a slow day, roughly a third of the normal turn out— but election officials told us it was the perfect occasion to put the new machines through a test drive of sorts. But just a few minutes after our arrival it became clear that things were off to an interesting start.

RANCELLI: I'm not sure why this is happening

BRANCACCIO: A couple of election officials have run into a snag with one of the new voting machines. It's called the Automark and was designed specifically to help disabled people vote.

The two workers try to run a few test ballots, but can't get the machine to work.

LARRY: "print validation failed"

RANCELLI: That's because your ballot jammed again coming out.

BRANCACCIO: In the end, no luck. Going into the Primaries, election officials had been apprehensive about this machine. The county bought a bunch of them from Election Systems & Software, or ES&S. There are four primary manufacturers that provide the new technology to the entire country and ES&S is said to be the largest.

That was not much help on this primary day in Oakland County. The ES&S Automark machines were not doing what they should and the election staff's apprehension has turned into frustration.

LARRY: We come in here, we have this new machine, the Automark, we think, ah, it's great, it's going to assist the voter with the voting procedure. But today, it didn't assist us at all because we couldn't even get through a test ballot.

BRANCACCIO: These election workers are struggling with what has become a challenge nationwide. In 2002 the President signed the Help America Vote Act which divided 3.1 billion dollars among all 50 states to update their voting systems.

For the first time in the history of the Republic, that act of congress required all states, to overhaul their election process. The goal: never again with the hanging chads and so forth in Florida or anywhere. But the new machines are also troubled...a look at their track record shows they are making mistakes like over or under counting votes, not working altogether or suffering from programming glitches that have altered the outcome of elections.

Back in Oakland County, Michigan we found that the brand new Automark machines were hardly being used.

Curious, we asked a precinct supervisor to show us how they're supposed to work.

TIM: And right now it going to scan the ballot and marking the ballot. Ok it rejected this ballot and asked me to try again with another blank ballot. So I am going to pull this ballot out.

It sounds different than the last time we put it in. It sounds like it might be working but I don't know yet. So in this case it rejected it again - unable to identify ballot type - and frankly I don't understand why that is. I'll try to one more time. So again we get an error that says unable to identify the ballot type and I don't know enough about the error code to fix it myself.

BRANCACCIO: After the 5th attempt Donovan is finally able to get the Automark to accept a test ballot.

TIM: oh it looks like its printing. It looks like its working. Ellen can you confirm 3,396 registered voters for Lathrip Village?

BRANCACCIO: Once the polls closed we were invited back to the County Clerk's office where election workers were tabulating the primary results.

FEMALE WORKER: Ellen can you confirm 3,396 registered voters for Lathrip Village?

BRANCACCIO: The county bought a new system from ES&S — to help tally up all the votes from the precincts —at an estimated cost of more than $150,000. But on this night the election staff told us a programming glitch rendered the new system virtually useless and they were forced to bring in the results via email.

RUTH: Okay, well thank you all for coming. I know a lot of you have gone without sleep.

BRANCACCIO: The next day, Ruth Johnson, the county clerk who is ultimately in charge of elections meets with her staff to debrief.

RUTH: Tracy, can you give us an update?

TRACY: We talked to one Northern Township. They had a problem with a machine jamming in precinct one. At four o'clock when I talked to them, they were still using the machine, but they believed that votes might have been double counted so they had to go back and check that. Another Northern Township: they had an auto mark machine that— had jammed up to five times they were still trying to get it to work.

RUTH: We call it our ER room for a couple reasons. But it's an Electronic Recording Room.

Our biggest problem right now is it was delivered in May. And the company seems to be— so busy that the programming wasn't done properly. And that was probably the biggest disappointment for me.

TRACY: They had time to do this. If they had been here when they were supposed to be here, though. That's what ticks me off about this whole thing. They were scheduled to install it. They cancelled three times. I mean, who else would put up with this, for god's sake? It's ridiculous. I mean, how many thousands of dollars worth of equipment is up there that we haven't been able to use?

BRANCACCIO: In the end Johnson and her staff documented more than 100 problems that took place during the primary.

We asked ES&S if we could interview a company rep about all of this —they sent us a written response instead.

On questions about that new tabulation system that couldn't be used, ES&S wrote :

"due to a limitation created by the program — a procedural change was necessary.... This issue has already been addressed in advance of November."

And as for those machines that were rejecting ballots? The company says it was human error adding that:

"There were a few situations in certain polling locations in which ballots were apparently bent during storage"

Primary in Oakland County was a test case and they are using what industry analysts tell us is some of the best technology in the country. So how could a sleepy summer Primary still cause this many headaches? According to published reports roughly half of the states that have held primaries so far this year have experienced problems with the new voting technology. It is called the Help America Vote Act, but critics ask when you take a closer look—to what extent is it really helping?

In Texas, a programming error was blamed for an extra 100, 000 votes recorded but never cast.

In perennially challenged Ohio an independent audit found that 1 in 6 electronic voter tallies did not match the paper trail and because of computer malfunction or human error 10% of the paper trail was destroyed, blank, illegible or missing.

This year, in a local Iowa election officials noticed something weird when a college student was leading the race over a political veteran with 23 years experience.... Turns out a ballot counting malfunction with the new technology was to blame.

In response to these types of issues—groups of voters in at least 12 states have filed lawsuits seeking to replace the new voting technology.

After an intense public outcry New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson has pledged to replace the state's current crop of electronic voting machines with a system that creates a paper trail.

And there is another issue that critics say needs attention—security. That's a particular concern any time the machines are adjusted— in fact, election workers in Michigan were given a script to read so that voters would understand when they opened up the unit that there was no funny business going on.

LARRY: "Members of Precinct 8, in accordance with state law MCL-1658.79782, two election inspectors of different political parties are rearranging voted ballots so that the M100 may operate properly."

BRANCACCIO: Concerns about security are real—and those issues made their way back to Congress. In July at a House hearing to evaluate the machines—expert witnesses testified about the vulnerabilities of the new devices.

WAGNER: A single person may be able to switch votes on a large scale, possibly undetected, and potentially swing a close election.

BRANCACCIO: Avi Rubin has been studying this for years. He is a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, and considered one of the foremost experts on electronic voting technology. Rubin says it is quite possible to rig an election.

RUBIN: I don't think it would be that hard to do//I've done back of the envelope calculations on what it would take to do something like that and if I or one of my graduate students were working for a primary vendor in the right place at the right time— we know that we could do it.

BRANCACCIO: Rubin says he first became concerned about electronic voting when he was asked to analyze the computer source code used by Diebold, another of the major manufacturers' of electronic voting machines. That code is the secret ingredient, equivalent to the formula for Pepsi or Coke, only one with more implication for our democracy.

RUBIN: We wrote a report that highlighted a lot of security problems, and we recommended that— these machines not be used in elections.

BRANCACCIO: The same week Rubin issued the report, his home state Maryland purchased thousands of the Diebold machines— meaning Rubin now has to cast his vote on the very units he finds insecure.

Diebold dismissed Rubin's study saying that his sampling of their software was either, "inaccurate or incomplete".

There is something else that worries Rubin. Maryland as well as 23 other states do not require a paper trail as a back up in cases where electronic voting results are questioned.

RUBIN: a lot of people who support these machines say," Look. We had the election and nothing went wrong. It worked." But we don't know that.

BRANCACCIO: Rubin ultimately decided to do something about it. He applied for a 7.5 million dollar grant and now runs a lab where a team of scientists are working on developing more secure technology that he wants to share among the manufacturers of voting machines.

Deforest Soaries is the former Chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, he was appointed by the White House. The Commission was created as the first federal body to watch over voting issues.

SOARIES: It's now 2006 and we are no more certain today than we were in 2000 that we will not have an embarrassing moment and-and a tragic outcome in this year's election.

BRANCACCIO: Soaries says that during his tenure at the EAC, he became frustrated with the government's lack of foresight and attention regarding the implementation of the Help America Vote Act.

BRANCACCIO: So you come to this job full of optimism. If memory serves, things got off to a slow start over there.

SOARIES: To say that it got off to a slow start is really—to-to compliment the process. This was a tragedy. Right after we were confirmed, the four of us discovered that there was no operating budget for the commission itself.

There were no offices. There were no telephones. I literally went to Washington on the first Monday of January and had no place to report for work.

BRANCACCIO: I asked Soaries a question that was brought up by every state election official we spoke to—why didn't his federal commission order up real research it could share with the states before requiring them to buy all this new equipment?

SOARIES: We had zero dollars for research year one of the EAC. What I wanted was enough money and we suspected that $10 million would do it— to create a prototype. We have prototypes for toasters. We have prototypes for microwaves. Electronic equipment in this country is assumed to have passed the muster of some standard. And it has except in the area of voting.

BRANCACCIO: So things got very frustrating for you on that commission?

SOARIES: I hung in there until after the election. And right after the election I notified the White House that I was leaving. I've got 16 year old sons. And I'd rather spend time with them at their basketball games than to work in Washington with a Congress and a White House that is not really committed to this task which I thought was fundamental to our democracy.

BRANCACCIO: Paul Degregorio is the current Chairperson of the Election Assistance Commission and served along side Soaries for a time. Degregorio acknowledges the commission got off to a slow start but says there has been progress and that the new technology offers unprecedented advantages.

SOARIES: I have visited eight states this year to observe primary elections and I've seen in many cases— disabled voters, voting for the very first time, in private, and secretly. And one woman told me it was the first time in her life that her husband didn't know how she was casting her ballot

BRANCACCIO: DeGregorio maintains that it's to be expected the country will experience some growing pains as America continues to upgrade its voting systems. He says that each election will help the EAC and election officials refine the process—in fact he's given it a timeline of sorts.

SOARIES: It may take until 2010 before we may see a leveling off in the problems that— we've seen in— in previous elections.

BRANCACCIO: 2010— a sobering assessment and another presidential election gone by. DeGregorio's estimate brings up a fundamental question—how much of a work in progress should we expect our elections to be? And to what extent should the public worry about their vote counting?

Soaries says he has pondered these questions alot.

BRANCACCIO: What are you worried about specifically, that might happen this fall during the election cycle?

SOARIES: Oh, something's gonna happen (SIC). There's gonna be a power outage, where some machines don't work. And there's no contingency plan. There's gonna be a close race, where there's an inability to do a recount that satisfies everyone's needs.

There's gonna be a— an accusation of— tampering that can't be disproved

BRANCACCIO: But do you worry that just this discussion is gonna stop people from voting? Gonna throw up their hands hearing us?

SOARIES: What we don't need is for people not to vote. What we need for people to do is to vote, and insist on answers to questions about the machine. We need people to— to show up. We need the public to not only engage in voting, but to engage in the process of holding the elections administration— of voting accountable.

BRANCACCIO: For more on those new voting machines and other issues facing voters this fall, go to our website at PBS-dot-org.

It's been a rough summer for BP, one of the companies that oversees the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Part of that network was shut down in August, after a small spill revealed a key pipe was badly corroded... that on top of a huge 260,000 gallon spill this spring—the largest ever on Alaska's North Slope.

This is an issue PBS has been reporting on for years, most notably in the documentary "Extreme Oil: The Wilderness," which aired on PBS in the fall of 2004. Here's what was reported then... 18 months before the big spill.

NARRATOR: It's not hard to see why BP is so publicity shy.

In 2000, BP was fined 22 million dollars and placed on federal probation after pleading guilty to a criminal pollution violation. One of its contractors had been caught dumping toxic waste into the arctic sea bed.

Such incidents are often brought to light, not by the regulators 600 miles away in anchorage but by whistle-blowers like Mark Kovac.

KOVAC: I am taking a risk by coming here tonight. I could lose my job, and I could also get other workers in trouble. I'm doing this because BP doesn't like to make changes, we've had to force them to make changes, and forcing them to make changes means voicing our issues to newspapers and to the media.

KOVAC: BP's cutting back on maintenance mainly for short term profit. They've cut the budget on maintenance, and our systems have degraded, the pipelines are worn out. Those pipelines need to be replaced. BP has cut back on our emergency response services. While they're taking care of the short term budget, we've had people who've been injured, we've had people who've been killed, we've had explosions and fires and damage to the environment.——-.

NARRATOR: In a written statement BP claims they "worker safety and the environment are primary concerns in BP's business; that, with a dramatic decline in injury rates, the north slope oil fields are among the safest work locations in the united states; that its 'emergency response capability is extensive' that the company has increased its maintenance spending, investing more than 160 million dollars every year and that, through the application of new technology, BP has achieved a tenfold decrease in internal corrosion rates. BP is confident of the condition and operational integrity of their facilities and pipelines."

BRANCACCIO: It was the 'operational integrity of their facilities and pipelines' that was the topic of heated questioning at a house energy and commerce

Subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The buzzword of the day was "pig". These are gadgets that creep through pipelines cleaning muck and probing for signs of corrosion...

Corrosion that can lead to oil spills like the ones that got BP in trouble, cutting its Alaska production in half, and causing a temporary 3% spike in the global price of crude.

Among the witnesses: Richard Woollam - until last year he was responsible for keeping an eye on BP's pipes up there. But Woollam wasn't talking...

WOOLLAM: Mr.— Mr. Chairman— based upon the advice of counsel I respectfully will not answer questions based upon my right under the Fifth Amendment of the United States, the Constitution.


A federal investigation has begun into possible criminal and civil violations stemming from BP's management of Prudhoe Bay. With the man in charge of corrosion monitoring keeping mum, the committee grilled his boss, Steve Marshall, on a key question: why didn't the company regularly monitor—or run pigs through— its two main lines?

MARSHALL: We— we have a very— notwithstanding these leaks, we have a very comprehensive corrosion management system.

We tend to focus— we do focus all of our efforts where we believe the risk of corrosion to be the highest.

CHAIRMAN: Clearly in this case, the procedures and protocols failed your company and— and the American people, right? I mean, cuz you ended up with these leaks, and now you've discovered, basically, you're gonna have to replace— how many miles of the pipe?

MARSHALL: We are gonna replace 16 miles of pipe.

CHAIRMAN: Sixteen miles of pipe.

BRANCACCIO: Committee members were armed with a number of BP internal and outside reports on those pipes... reports whose recommendations may have been ignored- or even edited- by the company. There was a 2001 corrosion report written by consultants Coffman engineers

INSLEY: It had lines such as, "Smart pigging is the only inspection technique capable of looking at the whole internal and external corrosion picture," close quote. That disappeared after British Petroleum talked to these engineers. No such reference in the final report.

There are loads of language like this in this report that's gone after British Pet— Petroleum started to work on this report. And to use a bit of a British understatement, it turned an inspection report into a bit of a whitewash.

MARSHALL: I don't believe BP wrote that final report. It was still a Coffman report. But, so far we found no evidence of pressure— on Coffman Engineering to— to— to change that report.

BRANCACCIO: But—in the end—one BP company report suggested to house members that the world's second largest oil company—which bills itself as eco-friendly—had not been pigging its pipes... because it didn't want to spend the money.

BALDWIN: Mr. Marshall, this report seems to suggest that there was pressure at BP to reduce expenditures on its corrosion program. Would you agree with that?

MARSHALL: One of the things I regret is that I didn't do more to— change the perception inside our team about spending money.

I'm proud to say that— those conditions today are far better than what they were. They're clearly a long way short of being good enough. And— and I do regret that.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. In New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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