E-Voting, Courtesy of Venezuela?

Hacking, viruses, technical malfunctions. Thought you’d heard it all when it comes to what could go wrong with electronic voting machines? How about conspiracy, coporate subterfuge and … Hugo Chavez? That’s right. According to a New York Times report today, the federal government is looking into the parent company of Sequoia Voting Systems, which makes the electronic voting machines that will be used in Denver and Arapahoe counties. The company, Smartmatic Corp., is owned by Venezuelans, and the government wants to know if President Hugo Chavez has any involvement..

Officials of Smartmatic and the Venezuelan government strongly denied Saturday that Chavez’s administration, which has been bitterly at odds with the White House, has any role in running Smartmatic.

Asked late Saturday about the federal probe, Alton Dillard, spokesman for the Denver Election Commission, said: “We’re happy with the performance of the machines in Denver County. They’ve worked properly.”

He said officials are confident Denver’s voting systems are not vulnerable to tampering: “These machines cannot be hacked.”

Smartmatic was a little-known firm with no experience in voting technology before it was chosen by Venezuelan authorities to replace the country’s elections machinery ahead of a contentious 2004 referendum that confirmed Chavez as president.

With a windfall of some $120 million from contracts with Venezuela, Smartmatic bought the much larger and more established Sequoia Voting Systems from a British-owned company. Sequoia now has voting equipment installed in 17 states.

Since its takeover by Smartmatic in March 2005, Sequoia has aggressively marketed its machines in Latin America and other developing countries, but the role of the Venezuelans who founded Smartmatic has become less visible in public documents as the company has been restructured into an elaborate web of offshore companies and foreign trusts.

“The government should know who owns our voting machines – that is a national- security concern,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who asked the Bush administration in May to review the Sequoia takeover.

The concern over Smartmatic’s purchase of Sequoia comes amid rising unease nationwide about the security of touch- screen voting machines.

Opposition members of Venezuela’s electoral council said they were excluded from the bidding process that led in February 2004 to the selection of Smartmatic and a partner, Bizta, over companies with ample experience to replace a $120 million election system built by another American firm.

At the time, Smartmatic was a technology startup that operated from a small house in Boca Raton, Fla. Its chief officers were two 30-year-old Venezuelan engineers, Antonio Mugica and Alfredo Anzola, who were childhood friends.

After an election in Chicago in March in which Sequoia voting machines were blamed for delays and irregularities, Smartmatic’s president acknowledged that Smartmatic workers had been flown up from Venezuela to help with the vote.

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