COMMENTARY: Steve Miller
Las Vegas Tribune
September 4, 2002

Former Registrar of Voters now working for voting machine manufacturer

In 1993, a group of citizens pleaded with the Clark County Commission to buy optical scan voting equipment that preserves a paper ballot in case a recount is demanded. Instead, the Commission followed the advice of then-Clark County Registrar of Voters Kathryn Ferguson and purchased millions of dollars worth of touch-screen, paperless voting machines manufactured by a company that is now her employer.

In 2001, Sequoia Pacific, the Oakland-based company that makes the paper ballot-less equipment, named Ferguson Vice President for Government and Public Affairs at an undisclosed salary. Her assistant Larry Lomax replaced her as Registrar.

Because of lack of redundancy, Clark County now has a voting system that could potentially be programmed to give candidate or question "A" the votes of candidate or question "B" with no way of confirming the error had occurred.

Also, because of 17-day Early Voting, it is possible that certain people may have the ability to sample the actual ballots in privacy before Election Day. If their candidate or question needs help, it is speculated that the paper ballot-less machines make it possible to switch the votes undetected.

Since the mayoral election of 1987, critics have accused the county's Registrars of Voters of rigging elections. If this actually has occurred, the clumsiness of such an operation using paper ballots could be detected as was possibly the case in 1987 when a flurry of unusual activity was observed at the Election Department on the nights leading up to a recount of the paper ballots then used.

It was speculated that many persons would have to be involved in re-punching paper ballots and physical evidence might be left for detection. Critics speculated that if elections were to be rigged in Clark County, it was obvious that the previous paper ballot system would have to be replaced.

In 1993, Clark County began evaluating the purchase of an optical scan voting system that featured paper ballots. Also in contention was the paperless Sequoia Pacific system touted by Ferguson.

At the same time, Reno was also contemplating replacing their punch card system. In a letter written to the Washoe County Commission by Registrar of Voters Marlene Henderson, she stated "There is no way to conduct a 'recount' on the Sequoia AVC because there simply are no physical ballots to recount!" She went on to say "The Sequoia costs 1000% more than the optical scan system and is incapable of processing absentee mail in ballots or challenged ballots forcing the purchase of a second system."

This letter convinced the Washoe County Commission to purchase an optical scan system with a paper ballot backup that is currently in use.

In the meantime, Clark County officials were making their own determination as to what kind of new system they wanted.

In a letter to the Clark County Commission from State Senator Ann O'Connell dated June 6, 1995, the Senator stated, "The major concern involves the lack of an individual paper ballot. It is our understanding that it should be possible to attach a printer to the voting machine, which would print out a paper copy after each person votes. A voter could review that copy for accuracy then deposit it in the ballot box as is currently done with a punch card."

On May 10, 1995, State Senator William R. O'Donnell made the following statement, "I would like to encourage the Sequoia Pacific Company to come up with a printed type ballot that can be dropped in a box, individually, by a voter at a very reasonable price. If not, then I would hope that the county would look into and consider very carefully the aspects of getting out of that contract and going to a machine that is more appropriate to do the things that this body would request."

The concerns of Senators O'Connel and O'Donnell fell on deaf ears in Clark County. When questions arose in 1995 as to whether it was legal in Nevada to vote electronically in the absence of a paper ballot backup, Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Pappa responded that the Sequoia Pacific computer produced what she called a "Functional Equivalent" of a paper ballot. She went on to say that such an equivalent was "exactly the same" as a paper ballot and that she therefore fully approved the paperless system.

Since Clark County has been using the Sequoia Pacific machines, several unusual things have occurred. The day before the election in 1998 when the ballot question regarding the quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for a second water line was to be voted upon, the Las Vegas Review Journal and KTNV Channel 13 News conducted a poll. The results showed that 80% of those surveyed did not approve of the tax increase because the "second straw" would mainly benefit developers, and it would go down to defeat by an 80/20 margin. The following day the vote took place and the quarter-cent sales tax increase passed by an 80/20 margin -- the opposite result from the previous day's survey.

Then in 1999, the Las Vegas City election had its' own anomaly. In the Ward One race, the early votes started 17 days prior to the day of the election. The early votes were reported on Cox Cable News beginning election night at 7:05PM and indicated that the incumbent had 63%, his closest challenger had 23%, followed by three other candidates with 10%, 2%, and 2% each. At 10 PM, all votes had been counted and the final percentages in Ward One again were 63%, 23%, 10%, 2%, and 2%. Unexplainably, no changes in the percentages had occurred in three hours of counting votes from the Sequoia machines.

Mr. Lomax comes across as being a very sincere and dedicated public servant, however, he readily admits to having little or no knowledge of computers. The Sequoia Pacific voting system is 100% computerized. If a recount were to take place, the only method would be to take the hard drives from each voting machine and re-download them for a second count.

Like the hard drive in your PC, to remove and replace it in another PC is to see the same data - hardly a viable method to do a recount of a challenged election. If a printer were installed as was suggested by Senators O'Connel and O'Donnell, then the printed ballots would be counted instead.

Unfortunately, only the Las Vegas Tribune has had the fortitude to keep bringing up this subject. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of tax payer's dollars are being spent trying to convince voters to "Vote Early."


Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman and Clark County Regional Transportation Commissioner. In 1991, the readers of the Review Journal voted him the "Most Effective Public Official" in Southern Nevada. Visit his website at: