Critics of electronic voting are suing Diebold Inc. under a whistleblower law, alleging that the company's shoddy balloting equipment exposed California elections to hackers and software bugs.
California's attorney general unsealed the lawsuit Friday. It was filed in November but sealed under a provision that keeps such actions secret until the government decides whether to join the plaintiffs.
Lawmakers from Maryland to California are expressing doubts about the integrity of paperless voting terminals made by several large manufacturers, which up to 50 million Americans will use in November.
The California lawsuit was filed in state court by computer programmer Jim March and activist Bev Harris, who are seeking full reimbursement for Diebold equipment purchased in California.
Issues cited by the case include Diebold's use of uncertified hardware and software, and modems that may have allowed election results to be published online before polls closed.
They are asking California to join the lawsuit against Diebold. The state has not yet made a decision.
State election officials have spent at least $8 million on paperless touchscreen machines. Alameda County, for one, has spent at least $11 million.
Under the whistleblower statute, March and Harris could collect up to 30 percent of any reimbursement.
"This is about money now -- a case of the capitalist system at work," said March, of Sacramento. "The laws on voting products and processes are unfortunately unclear. But the law on defrauding the government is really, really clear. Going after the money trail is cleaner than going after proper procedures."
Diebold spokesman David Bear said Saturday the company has not been served with the lawsuit and would not comment until it reviewed the case.
Election officials have until Sept. 7 to decide whether to join the lawsuit, said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Alameda County also has not yet decided whether to participate, said Elaine Ginnold of the county's registrar of voters office. She said Diebold has been "extremely responsive" in addressing problems with its system used in the March primary, which forced at least 6,000 of 316,000 voters to use backup paper ballots.
"I think we avoided a major crisis -- it would have been much, much worse had we not had those paper ballot backups," Ginnold said.
Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned one Diebold voting system unless counties met a host of conditions, including precautions to prevent tampering and giving paper ballots to voters who prefer them.
In the March primary, 573 of 1,038 polling places in San Diego County failed to open on time because of computer malfunctions. A software bug in North Carolina's 2002 general election deleted 436 electronic ballots from six paperless machines in two counties.
Some people are critical of the use of the whistleblower statute with its reward system for plaintiffs.
"I would like to see people support a real solution rather than just try to cash in," said Alan Dechert, founder of Open Voting Consortium Inc., whose voting system relies on nonproprietary software. "There are a lot of people who could be a tremendous asset, but they're grandstanding and reveling in the expose."