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California Severely Limits Electronic Voting

By       Message Steven Rosenfeld     Permalink
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Saying California's touch-screen electronic voting machines can not prevent hackers or partisans who want to alter vote counts, Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced late Friday that she will remove thousands of the machines from use in California's new early 2008 presidential primary next Feb. 5. Southern California - from San Diego to Orange County to Los Angeles - will most seriously affected.

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Bowen issued a series of directives that will allow individual California precincts to use only one touch-screen machine manufactured by Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems, if those manufacturers make security improvements well before next year's presidential primary. Even with those improvements, Bowen said those brands were not secure enough to be fully outfit a precinct, which typically use a half-dozen or more of the same voting machines. Instead the lone machine will primarily be used by disabled voters, who in surveys, say they prefer the touch-screen machines.

In contrast, counties using touch-screen voting machines made by Hart InterCivic could continue to use several of those machines in precincts, Bowen said, because those systems were more secure - provided that company also adopted new security measures. However, voting systems made by a fourth firm, Election Systems and Software, or ES&S, could not be used until the company completed a comprehensive security review. That decision affects Los Angeles County, the nation's largest voting jurisdiction with more than 4 million registered voters.

Bowen also ordered election directors in California's 56 counties to prepare security plans for electronic voting machines in 45 days, and said she would soon issue rules on handling security issues posed by the machines. She also will soon issue new rules for expanded vote count audits and recounts in close elections.

"When you look at how people actually vote in the state, more than two-thirds and probably three-quarters will not be affected by the decisions that I am announcing today," Bowen said, emphasizing she had a duty to investigate and address concerns about the integrity of California elections. "The systems that we use to cast and tally votes in this state are the most fundamental tools of democracy. If our citizens don't have faith in the tools, then election officials have to investigate their citizen's concerns."

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Bowen's decision came after a University of California study on election security issues that she commissioned reported the state's touch-screen machines had extensive security flaws that could be breached by people who want to alter election results. The results of that study were released in late July. This past Monday, a public hearing on the findings was held in Sacramento. Bowen had to make a decision by Friday night under a state law requiring any change in election machinery be issued 180 days before the election.

The new touch-screen voting machine voting policy was quickly criticized by the voting machine manufacturers and county election administrators' trade association.

"California-based Sequoia Voting Systems is disappointed," Michelle Shafer, Vice President of Communications and External Affairs for Sequoia Voting Systems, said in an e-mail. "Today's voting systems used in California and throughout the United States are the most tested, secure, accurate, auditable and accessible voting systems in our nation's history."

"Thank you. Now can you please tell us what voting systems we can use," said Stephen Weir, California Association of Clerks and Election Officials president and Contra Costa County election director, who was present for Bowen's announcement. "I think the registrars are stunned by this. I don't think we are in a position to react."

Weir said the several large southern California counties would be hardest-hit by Bowen's directives. San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange Counties all use the touch-screen voting systems. Los Angeles County is in a different category because it uses a paper ballot that is marked with a pen and then scanned by computers. However, the maker of that system, ES&S, did not initially cooperate with a U.C. study, prompting Bowen to decertify its use until it completes that review. Bowen said it could still be approved for the 2008 primary.

Weir said 22 of California's 56 counties use touch-screen voting systems for all voters in their precincts. Another 14 counties use the machines for early voting, and 42 counties use single machines in each precinct for voters with disabilities. He said it was an open question whether the counties and voting machine manufacturers would comply with Bowen's directives in time for the 2008 presidential primary.

"We're going into the worst election cycle we have ever had," he said, referring to a fall vote in November and three major statewide elections next year. "In primaries, you have a lot of ballot types. It is a very precise science. You don't do it lightly... You can't do it at Kinko's."

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Apart from Los Angeles County, the rest of the state evenly splits its voting between absentee ballots - paper ballots that are mailed in before Election Day and scanned by computers - and a variety of electronic precinct-based voting machines, including the touch-screen systems. Weir said the ballot-scanning systems used to count absentee ballots were now overtaxed and could not accommodate the additional voters who have been using the touch-screen systems in their neighborhood precincts. He said shifting to these paper-ballot scanning systems by next February - Bowen's preference - would be nearly impossible because neither the manufacturers of those machines nor the ballot printers could ramp up before the 2008 primary. The busy early presidential primary season was already taxing these sectors of the voting machine industry, he said.

"There is not enough paper. There are not enough printers - in California and across the country," Weir said, adding only paper from certified printers can be used for ballots. "If you push people back to paper ballots, no vender can support all of California."

But Bowen predicted that California counties could and world meet the deadlines she set, including transitioning to new systems where paper ballots are counted by scanning. She said all California now use these systems for their absentee ballots. While these voting systems were not hacker-proof, the fact paper ballots were used ensured voter intent could be determined in a recount, she said, which touch-screen systems lack.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  and many newspapers. (more...)

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