Poll Worker: Sequoia to Blame, Not ‘User Error’

After it became clear Denver’s election debacle was largely caused by the slowness and repeated crashing of Sequoia Voting Systems’ electronic poll book, Sequoia tried to place the blame on “user error.”

There was a lot of talk before the election about the difficulty older workers were having with the new technology, so perhaps Sequoia didn’t anticipate tech-savvy poll book workers like Kim Sayers, who said not only was the poll book poorly designed and possibly not finished, but Sequoia employees didn’t know how to use it correctly, either. Sayers is a former tech worker who owned her own software company. She’s been an election worker for many years, and this year was a poll book judge at Southwest Recreational Center in Denver. When it became clear on Election Day there were major problems with the poll book, Sayers began questioning the Sequoia tech worker, only known as Tom, who was overseeing Southwest and two other vote centers.

The trouble began, as most know by now, when the servers crashed as workers across the county logged in at 7 a.m. A concerned Sayers asked Tom about the servers the system was running on and whether load tests had been run.

According to Sayers, Tom replied, “Take it easy, we’re not done writing this yet.”

He also told Sayers the city wouldn’t allow Sequoia to run a load test and insisted the poll book use Denver’s own servers, on which other city programs were running.

Sayers was shocked.

“For something this important, we’re not even on a dedicated server,” she said.

Eventually, they switched to other servers, Sayers said. She isn’t sure if they were other city servers or if they belonged to Sequoia. It wasn’t long, though, before the system slowed to a crawl. That’s when Sayers discovered a trick that speeded up the process.

When poll workers first logged in, they were greeted by a main start page. One of the options was a “Search Page,” which workers were instructed to select. After going through the process of searching for and checking in a voter, the only button that appeared was “Return to Search Page.”

Often, Sayers couldn’t find a voter’s registration. She discovered that by closing the search window and returning to the main start page, she could then find the voter in the system. She also realized the system worked faster when she did that. She told Tom about her discovery. He called it “interesting” and left to make a phone call.

Sayers said she and other workers were never told to close the window, and common sense told them to just use the “Return to Search Page” button. Afterward, she looked through her training manual and talked to other workers, and she’s sure they were never told to close the search page.

But when Tom came back, he told everyone to make sure they closed the search screen and returned to the start page after checking in each voter. He said that’s what they were supposed to be doing all along.

“I said, ‘Hey, isn’t that the workaround I just told you about?'” Sayers said. “I don’t think they knew that beforehand”

Yet in the days following the election, Sequoia blamed the workers.

From a Nov. 9 Denver Post article:

Technicians at Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. – the manufacturer of Denver’s election software and hardware – said the problem was in the use, not the design, of the election program.

Many election judges apparently neglected to close computer windows after checking each voter’s status, Denver officials said Tuesday.

Sequoia spokesman Mitch Stoller said it was his understanding that computerized check-in “sessions” then accumulated on Denver’s network, clogging it.

Sequoia crafted software to Denver’s specifications, Stoller said, and Denver officials did not ask that the program include a “timeout” feature to automatically purge old voter check-in sessions.

Sayers said it was a faulty design on Sequoia’s part.

“If the user was supposed to return to the main menu, then the button should say ‘Return to Main Menu,’ not ‘Return to Search Screen,” Sayers said.

The poor design, which should have been simple, was possibly the cause of the Election Day fiasco, Sayers said. If the poll book crashed because too many “sessions” clogged the system, as officials say, then Sequoia is to blame, not “user error.”

But, Sayers said, it’s important to question why the Denver Election Commission chose Sequoia to create the poll book. It didn’t have to be compatible with the electronic voting machines the city already had from Sequoia, Sayers said, because the voting machines and the poll book aren’t connected.

“I maintain we have enough talent in the Denver area that it could have been done by using local software companies,” she said. “The electronic poll book system is not a complicated one.”