The eyes of a nation were on Diebold Inc. on election night.
The company and several competitors have been under a microscope since rolling out touch-screen voting systems in a smattering of states for the 2004 presidential election. While voters selected candidates, the election also was a referendum on the plastic-housed electronic voting units.
The systems had been a highly charged issue themselves before the 2004 election.
The touch-screen machines allow voters to register their choices electronically, ridding those voting precincts of the paper ballots that helped delay results for weeks in the 2000 presidential election. The technology has been in place for years but new developments in plastics have made the machines lighter and more accessible to polling places.
``It was a new experience for a lot of people, and we hoped everything would go well,'' said Michael Jacobsen, director of corporate and marketing communications for Diebold. ``Early returns were good on election night. There weren't any widespread glitches at all.''
While executives at North Canton-based Diebold and others could breathe a slight sigh of election-night relief, the system is not yet widely accepted across the United States. Still, the new electronic voting units have been a top priority at Diebold Election Systems Inc., a company subsidiary, since January 2003.
Diebold, a publicly held maker of automated-teller machines and other self-service systems, had purchased McKinney, Texas-based Global Election Systems Inc. at the beginning of 2003. It inherited a touch-screen voting system, called TS.
While the first version of the system worked well, it was not as practical from a design standpoint, said Paul Magee, director of strategic design and brand integrity at Diebold. The direct-recording electronic terminals, or DRE's for short, were as clunky to carry as a large piece of hand-held luggage, he said.
The heavy plastic case weighed 48 pounds, much too heavy for the average poll worker to drag around a precinct, Magee said. The carrying case, made of a polycarbonate/ABS blend, was bulky and difficult to attach. And the aluminum legs attached separately. Some states complained of warehousing issues with the machines, Jacobsen said.
``The biggest shock to us was the size of the machines, compared to the age of most poll workers,'' Magee said. ``On average, poll workers are 72 years old and retired. In terms of usability, our industrial design staff had some work to do on the machines.''
The older TS machines also were not easily accessible for physically challenged or elderly voters. The touch-screen tablets could not be removed to fit on the lap of a wheelchair-bound voter, and the degree of rotation to accommodate various angles of sight was limited, Magee said.
``We didn't want anyone to feel disenfranchised from the voting process,'' he said. ``That was a big issue.''
With the presidential elections coming in less than two years, Diebold officials worked quickly to find a more-permanent solution in the design of the plastic body, Magee said. In the spring and summer of 2003, Magee's industrial design group started developing the next version, to be known as TSx touch-screen machines.
A primary goal was lowering the weight of the entire unit, legs and all, to under 30 pounds. The designers created a machine that weighed only 27 pounds, he said.
The end result was a fully contained, clamshell unit that allows the legs to fold into the case. The case itself also acts as a curtain, with the plastic sides opening from a hinge on either side of the unit to offer privacy.
``Generally, just integrating the carrying case into the design of the unit was a huge change,'' said Kevin Liesner, principal engineer at Diebold who helped supervise the manufacturing end of the TSx machines. ``It all had to be worked into the design.''
The touch screen itself contains the brains of the unit. The tablet can be detached from the chassis and handed to a wheelchair-bound voter. The tablet, which holds the memory card that registers the vote, now weighs only 10 pounds, Magee said.
The unit folds easily, with the legs tucked underneath. The units can be stacked on top of each other in warehouses, he said.
The Diebold team decided to overmold part of the unit. The area surrounding the screen's touch points have a soft feel from the use of thermoplastic elastomers. Voters risked the possibility of cutting their hands on sharp edges of the older units, Magee said. The handle also is overmolded for ease of picking the unit up, Liesner added.
Diebold's tool shop designed the molds for the entire system, Liesner said. Beach Mold & Tool Inc. of New Albany, Ind., injection molded the parts. The new unit contains 12 parts, much fewer than in the previous version, he said.
The touch screens vastly reduce the problem of undervoting, where error or the inability to press hard enough on a paper ballot causes the vote not to be counted, Jacobsen said. The difficulty with hanging chads goes away, as does the problem with a machine being unable to read a pencil mark, he said.
But, there are critics of electronic voting systems, and numerous articles were written before the presidential election on how problems with the equipment could sway the outcome.
One of the biggest complaints: there was no verifiable paper document that could be used in the case of a power failure or software glitch. Some critics espoused darker conspiracy theories about Diebold. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Walden O'Dell was quoted as saying he would do what he could to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to President George W. Bush.
Diebold officials say the concerns were unwarranted. All information is stored on a memory card that records the votes on a central system. Even in the case of a machine malfunction, the card will continue to work. The machines also contain an internal thermal printer that is used for testing throughout the day, he said. In case a card malfunctions, the printer will record the vote, he said.
The company also is developing a printer that will give voters a printout of their selections at the booth, Liesner said. The unit, made of the same PC/ABS and connected to the electronic system, will provide a paper trail, he said. Liesner declined to say when the printer would be on the market.
Only about 50,000 Diebold touch-screen units were used in the Nov. 2 election, Jacobsen said. Many were in the state of Georgia, where Diebold has a $55.6 million agreement to supply touch screens. Others were placed throughout most of Maryland (outside of Baltimore), in Alameda County in California and in Johnson County in Kansas.
The company expects to have more in place by mid-2006, when other states have deadlines to spend federal dollars to install the units, he added.
By then, Diebold - and other suppliers - hope the polarizing debate over electronic voting subsides.
``We have to keep surpassing expectations,'' he said. `That will stop any apprehension about [electronic voting],'' Magee said.