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Pundits Call to Review Diebold Over Lingering Ethical Questions

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Aired 4/19/09

[Editor's note: The day after this story aired, Diebold announced it is changing its name .]

Few people in county government need the public trust more than those responsible for counting votes. Yet questions continue to swirl around two people hired this year to run elections in San Diego County. KPBS reporter Amita Sharma has more.

In 2003, Diebold saleswoman Deborah Seiler sold San Diego County’s Registrar $31 million dollars worth of voting machines. In 2007, she became San Diego County’s Registrar. Seiler’s career change has spawned accusations of conflict of interest and left some outraged, including Thomas Jefferson Law School Professor Marjorie Cohn.

Cohn : When you have someone who is the west coast sales representative for Diebold -- these machines are incredibly controversial, the secretary of state has banned them from our elections -- and you have her coming as the Registrar of Voters, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there’s something wrong there.

And Cohn says it doesn’t get better when you look at who else the county hired.

Michael Vu became the new assistant registrar in April after he left his post as elections chief in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County .

Cohn : When you have someone coming in as her right hand man who was involved in one of the most controversial areas in Ohio -- which was of course one of the most controversial states in the last election -- and in fact he was criticized by an independent group that investigated his conduct during that election -- it just doesn’t make sense.

During last year’s primary in Cuyahoga County, poll workers didn’t know how to work the new electronic voting machines on election day. And dozens of memory cards holding vote counts were lost. Vu is also known for overseeing the 2004 election in which two of his deputies were convicted of vote rigging.

The man who gave Seiler and Vu the two top jobs at the registrar’s office is not talking. He is Chief Administrative Officer Walt Eckard. Back in May, he told a crowd of protesters opposing the hires he understood there was disagreement over his decision. He went on to say, “I have heard you. I have listened to you. I disagree with you and that’s it.”

But is that it?

Sam Popkin : There’s so much smoke that I can’t believe the board hasn’t done something to ensure us that there were no fires.

That’s Sam Popkin, a pollster and political scientist at UCSD.

Popkin : The board of supervisors is responsible for their hiring. The board of supervisors should be held accountable for not explaining to us whether or not they hired responsible, competent people of integrity -- or hacks.

Yet, Supervisor Ron Roberts says “issues like this don’t rise to the board of supervisors.”

Roberts : The people below us we feel they’re hiring the best possible candidates. These two individuals as far as I know aren’t accused of anything that is illegal or is improper or anything else.

San Diego officials would not tell us how many people were interviewed for either post or what kind of background checks were done.

A spokesman did say, “there is not an election official that’s been more investigated than Michael Vu, and he was not indicted.” A request for an interview of Vu was denied.

Seiler told KPBS earlier in June her background is a plus.

Seiler : The experience that that affords me is valuable to the county, and I think it was perceived that way to the administrators. I also would point out that I have 25 years of experience in elections, most of which was in the public sector, working for the secretary of state.

Still, the political scientist Popkin wants the county to ask an independent group to assess the hiring of the pair.

Popkin : Whether or not people go to the polls, they need to believe there was an honest vote.

But Supervisor Roberts say that belief is not in doubt. He says the board has no plans to call for hearings or a review.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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