Meet Delegate Tim Timken, Election-Reform Case-Study

Of the 2,509 delegates filling the floor of Madison Square Garden for the Republican convention, few may fit the archetype of the American heartland industrialist as well as W.R. (Tim) Timken, Jr., a fourth-generation steel-man from Canton, Ohio, whose family company is one of the largest manufacturers of tapered roller and needle bearings in the country.

In July, aggrieved members of the Timken Company steelworkers’ union addressed the Democratic National Convention by satellite feed from Canton to complain about Mr. Timken’s decision to close three Ohio plants over a labor dispute. Mr. Timken, 65, the company’s chairman since he retired as C.E.O. last year, seemed to take little notice, inviting President George W. Bush to speak just days later to a hand-picked group of workers.

A graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, Stanford University, and the Harvard Business School, Mr. Timken is a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor, a trustee of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, and a member of the Ohio Business Roundtable executive committee. He earned his way into the Ohio delegation by personally raising more than $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign coffers, giving him “Ranger” status on the campaign Web site; the Timken Company employees’ political-action committee has given another $150,000 or so to the Republicans since 2002.

But Mr. Timken wears another hat: He’s a longtime board member of the Diebold Corporation, another Canton-based company that is one of the largest vendors of electronic voting equipment in the country.

Like the Timken Company, Diebold has a history of generosity to the Republican Party. The company and its executives have given more than $400,000 to various campaigns, state committees and the national party since 2001, according to electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks news on election reform. Last summer, Diebold’s chief executive, Walden (Wally) O’Dell-himself a Bush-Cheney Pioneer, with more than $100,000 in contributions collected-caused a stir by sending out an invitation to a fund-raising event in which he said he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes” to Bush in the November presidential election.

E-voting opponents jumped when news of the letter leaked out last year, alleging that inherently hackable e-voting technologies ought not to be in the hands of entrepreneurs with such “commitments.” The unseemly, if farfetched, conspiracy they posited between Diebold-whose machines are used by counties from Florida to California-and the Republican party to rig the 2004 election resulted in an apology from Mr. O’Dell for his comments. In May he told the Associated Press: “The issue won’t go away. I feel very badly about it. I made a misstep with that letter.”

Mr. O’Dell’s public embarrassment and subsequent contrition hasn’t stopped Mr. Timken (who declined to be interviewed for this article) from getting on board the Bush-Cheney bus, raising thorny corporate ethics questions for Diebold and the other big electronic-voting vendors.

“People who run these machine companies should not be involved in making campaign contributions,” said Meredith McGehee, the executive director of the Pew-funded Alliance for Better Campaigns, who has been an advocate of transparency in the election process. “It’s not that these people shouldn’t have the right to give money, but it does give the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Three months ago, in June, Diebold passed a new corporate policy barring executives with oversight of the elections division-the company also makes A.T.M.’s-and employees of that division from giving money to political campaigns or from being involved in any way except for voting. According to Michael Jacobsen, a Diebold spokesman, the policy does not extend to Diebold’s board of directors.

“They have no oversight over elections at all,” Mr. Jacobsen said.

In November, an estimated 45 million voters across the country will cast their ballots on computerized electronic voting devices, which look and work like oversized cash machines. According to Election Data Services, a private consulting company that tracks the election-equipment market, some 10 million of those people will vote on Diebold machines in counties from Florida to California; 15 million more in California, Georgia, Nevada, and other states will rely on equipment made by Diebold’s main competitors, California-based Sequoia Voting Systems and Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software, to count their votes. The slim little computers record ballot choices on a chip card that poll workers pull out of the machines and deliver to county headquarters for tallying on Election Night.

But that leaves no paper record of ballots cast, say some computer scientists and lay activists who have criticized electronic voting equipment: there is no surefire way to guarantee that final tallies reflect the choices voters actually made.

That tiny wedge of doubt about the technology’s reliability widened into a gaping crack in 2003, after internal Diebold memos and source code surfaced on the Internet, making it the favorite whipping boy of the electronic voting activism world. The depth of the company’s political connections only aggravated an existing image problem.

“There are people out there determined to use every potential or actual political connection as a sign of conspiracy,” said Daniel Tokaji, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and an election-reform watcher. “I’m sure it didn’t occur to [Mr. O’Dell], but it should have occurred to him that the statements he made were foolish. He did the right thing by then saying he was going to stay out of politics altogether, but you know what they say: you can’t unring the bell.”

Like Diebold, both Sequoia and ES&S have political connections; ES&S, for example, was run by Chuck Hagel until 1995, when he left to run for the Senate as a Republican from Nebraska. (He retained a financial stake in the private holding company that controls the voting equipment maker after winning the seat.) But ES&S has given less than $50,000 total to candidates or the political parties since 2001, and that sum was almost evenly split, with $24,550 going to Democrats and $21,900 to Republicans. Sequoia has given even less-only about $21,000-with the bulk going to Democrats.

Only one Diebold executive-perhaps not coincidentally, the president of the maligned elections subsidiary-has given to a Democratic cause since 2001: Last year, Bob Urosovich stumped up $2,500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Roy Saltman, an independent consultant involved in researching the first government-standards testing of electronic voting equipment in the 1970’s, said it’s not only the scale, but the lopsidedness of Diebold’s contributions that have created an anomaly in the normally placid world of the voting-machine industry-one which, until federal election-reform legislation passed in 2002 created a $3.9 billion bonanza for vendors, was only about the size of the domestic lawnmower market.

“This thing about connections to a particular political party has only come up in the past year or two, and this is the first time this has occurred on a national scale,” Mr. Saltman said. “After all, they always wanted to sell to counties that were controlled by one party or the other. So I think they all were always very careful to avoid the national political connection.”

At the local level, Sequoia and ES&S also gave $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, to help fund a California bond proposition in 2002 that financed county purchases of new voting equipment; and Kevin Shelley, the Democratic state legislator who spearheaded the proposition’s passage, was subsequently elected California’s elections chief.

But that sort of “conflict,” some election experts say, is just a cost of doing business, not a moral flaw in the system.

“Everyone involved in the voting process has a built-in conflict of interest,” wrote Michael Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who testified before Congress in June about election equipment standards, in an e-mail to The Observer . But he went on: “The outcome of the election is not in the hands of the voting systems manufacturers, despite much nonsense that has been published.”

Both Sequoia and ES&S only make election equipment; at Diebold, which only got into the election business in 2002, when it acquired a Texas-based company called Global Election Systems, voting machines account for only four percent of the company’s annual $2.1 billion revenue.

As a result, and as Jacobsen, Diebold’s spokesman pointed out, the money train reflects a host of financial and strategic interests that may have nothing to do with the elections unit.

“It skews the numbers if you don’t think of it that way,” Jacobsen said.

“They didn’t pay attention to how [political involvement] would affect the way people who buy voting machines would view them,” said Mr. Saltman, who has characterized the election industry as one with an exceptionally high downside risk from negative publicity.

While in most industries – say, home appliances – bad publicity might only affect the company in question, in the peculiar little world of elections, bad publicity for new technology sends a signal to the country’s 5,000 or so local officials, who generally have very little technological expertise, that they should stop and wait for guidance from elsewhere before they make a decision on what kind of system to adopt.

Delays at the federal level in funding and staffing the new Election Assistance Commission, which is charged with developing technological standards for voting equipment, mean that oversight of election machines, and of the industry itself, has not been significantly heightened since 2000. Officials at the EAC say they have no established plans to deal with questions of corporate ethics, and in any event complain that the agency lacks the regulatory authority to demand that companies or local officials adhere to its guidelines.

In the meantime, as November approaches, unease about the machinery Americans use to vote may only rise.

“There is a great deal of intensity on the Democratic or liberal side, because the very real sense is that they lost, and they really feel the election was stolen. Bush was not their guy, and they got ripped off,” said Ms. McGehee, of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. “I don’t think that there was ever a sense before that an election was won or lost because of the technology, even though there might have been suspicions or how the ballots were counted, or of the officials. Those of us who were raised to believe that technology is nonpartisan are being disabused of that.”