Election Pros Are Cons

Two felons have been involved in printing and processing ballots for King County—one of them a convicted embezzler. A voter activist calls this a security breach.

Copyright © 2004 by Seattle Weekly

BEV HARRIS HAS tangled with election bigwigs around the country. Her exposés of shady practices, conflicts of interest, and poor security in both the private and public sectors have helped ignite a national debate over the integrity of the U.S. electoral system. Now the 52-year-old Renton resident is claiming that there are local examples of lax security, too—at the King County Department of Records, Elections, and Licensing Services. She says the elections office has John Elder, a convicted drug dealer, printing ballots and Jeff Dean, a 23-count embezzler, programming software.

Dean says Harris is a “tabloid fruitcake.” Most of her information “is not factually correct.”

Elder says he cannot comment due to the policy of his employer, Diebold Election Systems—itself the target, nationwide, for activist scrutiny of its election computer systems. Through a spokesperson, Diebold says it is aware of Elder’s background and sees no problem.

Dean Logan, the King County Director of Records and Elections, confirms that Elder is in a supervisory position with Diebold, which prints and sorts the county’s absentee ballots, but he says Elder’s criminal history is not an issue.

Logan also points out that Dean has not worked as a subcontractor for the county since April 2002, and “I’ve not seen anything to demonstrate that the systems in the past were compromised.” Says Logan: “My greater confidence comes in knowing that the systems we are using today are fully secure.”

Sophisticated Theft

In 1990, Dean was convicted of first-degree theft in King County for 23 counts of embezzlement of more than $385,000 from a law firm, where he was “a computer systems and accountant consultant,” according to Superior Court records. Dean’s thefts at the law firm, the records state, “occurred over a 21/2 -year period of time . . . The crimes and their cover-up involved a high degree of sophistication and planning in the use and alteration of records in the computerized accounting system that defendant maintained for the victim. . . . ” Dean served just under four years for his crime and was released in 1995. His sentence spelled out the following condition: “Defendant shall be required to notify anyone for whom he works either as an employee or an independent contractor of his convictions. . . . “

Before his release, Dean told prison officials he had secured employment with Postal Services of Washington, in Seattle, which today is known as PSI. For years, the company has sorted and aggregated mail for clients, including ballots for King County Records and Elections.

Dean next shows up in the public record later in 1995, as the general manager for Spectrum Print and Mail Services in Mountlake Terrace, which was founded by his wife three years earlier. In 1998, Spectrum won the contract to print ballots for King County’s new optical-scan voting system, which is in use today. By 1999, Dean was also the point man for implementation of a new software system to manage voter registration in King County.

At the time, Larry Alcantara was the director of King County Records and Elections and worked with Dean on both the new ballots and the new voter-registration system. Now retired, Alcantara had no knowledge of Dean’s criminal history. “I’m shocked,” he says. “I can understand folks being concerned. I am concerned.”

Says voter advocate Harris, who has repeatedly warned about lax security in and oversight of new voting systems that depend on computer software: “I hate to be hard-nosed about this, but my worst fears were realized.” She thinks it was completely inappropriate for Dean, a man with a history of computer-related crimes, to play a key role in the development of something as sensitive as voter-registration software. That’s why she contends King County is a prime offender when it comes to lax election security. “Do we have people with inside access that shouldn’t have it? Yes!”

Dean says the whole issue is overblown. He says Voter View, the voter-registration program that he was working on for the county, was never used by King County. “Voter View was a development project that never came to fruition,” Dean says.

Logan, the current Records and Elections director, confirms that Voter View never came on line. In March 2003, the county and Diebold Election Systems, which had by then acquired the contract for Voter View, reached a court settlement on the company’s failure to fulfill the contract for the software.

Activist Harris is not satisfied. She says Dean had “24-hour access to the building and the computer room and had direct access to both the personal information in the King County registration database and to the GEMS vote-tabulation program itself.” Harris cites a confidential source for this information.

Logan confirms that Dean had a key to the office door of Records and Elections, inside the King County Administration Building downtown. The GEMS vote tabulation software, which counts ballots in King County, is stored in a room inside the Records and Elections office, Logan explains, and access to the computer room is limited to people who possess a code that opens a lock controlled by an electronic keypad. The code is only given to a few people. Logan himself does not have it and neither did previous director, Alcantara. Moreover, King County keeps a list of all the people who are given the code, and Dean is not on it.

Logan notes that the vote-tabulation software has been tested in recent years, and no irregularities have been found. Before every election, the county performs logic and accuracy tests on the software, and it has always passed them, he says. In addition, there have been several recounts in recent years involving hand recounts to check the results obtained by the software. Logan says there have been no significant anomalies. For example, in the 2000 race for the U.S. Senate, between Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell, both the Republican and Democratic parties sent representatives from their national offices to observe the recount. Both parties and candidates, including the loser, Gorton, pronounced themselves confident in the accuracy of the results, says Logan.

Still, King County Council member Dow Constantine (D), who last year chaired the council’s Labor, Operations, and Technology Committee, which oversees Records and Elections, is uneasy. “It concerns me that a guy who had a conviction for theft involving computers would be working for a vendor who is helping handle our elections.”

Logan says he is in the process of negotiating a contract for new software to handle voter registration in King County. Even before the concerns about Dean came to light, the King County Prosecutor’s Office had stipulated that the contract have language compelling the vendor to do background checks on employees who are in sensitive positions. Logan says it is all part of increased awareness about security concerns in the wake of the controversial presidential election of 2000.

Absent(ee) Security?

Logan concedes there has been controversy about elections in King County, as well, in the past few years. In November 2002, the county fired Superintendent of Elections Julie Anne Kempf, claiming she had lied about why absentee ballots were mailed late. Last May, Director of Records and Elections Bob Roegner resigned after more problems with absentee ballots.

Activist Harris, a literary publicist who has become a nationally recognized crusader for election integrity, also is concerned about John Elder, the general manager of the Election Services Division of Diebold Election Systems in Everett, who oversees many aspects of absentee ballots in King County: printing, mailing, and sorting after voters return them.

Elder was convicted of delivery of cocaine in 1991. He and Dean both were imprisoned in the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Thurston County, in 1994, according to the state Department of Corrections. Their postprison employment histories intersect for several years after their release. Both men worked for companies that held important contracts for ballot printing and voting software with King County.

Elder, like Dean, told authorities that his first employer after release in 1996 would be PSI, the mail house that still sorts ballots for King County. By August 2000, in papers filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Elder was listed as the vice president for election products for Spectrum Printing, the now-defunct Mountlake Terrace firm managed by Dean that was printing absentee ballots and installing the new voter-registration software for King County. The same SEC filings indicate that Global Election Systems would buy Spectrum from Dean and his wife for $1.6 million and would employ both Elder and Dean. When, in January 2002, Diebold, the large corporation with divisions specializing in security and automated teller machines, bought Global Election Systems and renamed it Diebold Election Systems, Dean became a consultant to the company, and Elder was made general manager of the Election Services Division.

Currently, Elder is in charge of the shop where King County’s absentee ballots are printed, inserted into envelopes, and mailed to voters. He also subcontracts the work of sorting the incoming ballots from voters to his old employer, PSI, although Pitney Bowes, a larger corporation, now owns the company.

Diebold Election Systems’ director of marketing, Mark Radke, says Elder has always been candid with the company about his criminal history. “He paid his debt to society. He understood the mistake he made,” says Radke. “Elder has been a model employee. He is very security conscious. He should be praised, not ostracized.”

King County’s Logan says of Elder: “I didn’t know about his background, but I don’t think it has any direct relevancy to the work that they do for us now.”

Activist Harris says there are two ways that someone who supervises absentee ballots could manipulate election results: vote suppression, in which outgoing absentee ballots are “lost” from key precincts, and vote reduction—losing incoming ballots for a portion of voters in key precincts. Her remedy is simple. She wants King County to get the U.S. Postal Service to provide a receipt for the number of ballots that go out and the number that come back in. Each receipt could be a link in an audit trail.

Logan thinks such measures are unnecessary. “The suggestion they could lose a series of ballots from a geographic area—that’s unrealistic. They are not necessarily received in geographic order.” He says that King County personnel, who are supposed to disclose any criminal history as a condition of employment, have custody of the incoming ballots from the time they are picked up at the post office, and they stay with the ballots while the private mail house sorts them. From there, King County employees take the ballots to a county warehouse, where county employees verify signatures, open the ballots, and put them into counting machines. He says that since the problems with absentee ballots first surfaced, three separate studies—one by the secretary of state, one by former King County Elections Manager Ellen Hansen, and one by a citizens’ oversight panel appointed by the King County Council—have sent observers to watch the absentee ballots on their journey. “They have not identified that as an area of vulnerability,” says Logan.

King County Council Member Constantine is not so sure. By itself, Elder’s conviction does not bother him. “A drug conviction standing alone is not going to bar someone from working for a contractor with government,” he says. Elder’s apparent relationship with Dean, however, gives Constantine pause. “Someone who has a relationship with someone else who was convicted of theft using computer fraud—that involves the very type of crime about which we have concerns. It creates an appearance with the public that things could be potentially wrong. People need to have confidence that their elections are as perfect as people can make them.”

Dean finds all this suspicion ridiculous. “John Elder and myself should be poster children in prisons around the state for how you can turn your life around. All the rest of the stuff is negative spin by Bev Harris.”

For her part, Harris wants to promote solutions to the credibility gap. “I’m trying to help with remedies,” she says. “Election officials are not very sophisticated about how people can attack their systems.”