by Ian Hoffman, Alameda Newspaper Group, 03/07/04
When Katherine Shao went to vote Tuesday morning in Emeryville, all she found was a row of powerless, blank touchscreen voting machines, soon joined by a single, harried poll worker. In a rush herself, Shao helped by signing herself in as a voter and booting up the machines.
The screens glowed in welcoming colors. Local elections officials had touted them as faster, more accurate and "as easy to use as an ATM." They paid for a video beckoning voters to "Touch the Future."
But no electronic votes could be cast that morning at Anna Yates Elementary School: To vote, Shao needed a digital ballot, and the code for her ballot was locked inside yet another machine. The device, a Precinct Control Module model 500, stubbornly resisted entreaties to come to life. No code, no ballot, no voting.
She never got a say on paying an extra dollar to cross the Bay's bridges, on forcing Sacramento to deliver balanced budgets, on paying the highest sales tax in California to rescue local public-health clinics, on shouldering $27 billion of state bond debt for the next decade or who besides George W. Bush should be leader of the free world.
But it took Tuesday's voting snafu in Alameda and San Diego counties to expose the ramshackle nature of voting-system testing and approval as California and other states rush to embrace electronic voting.
"The whole certification process has become plastic in order to accommodate the fundamental necessity of holding elections. You would bring the state into constitutional crisis if you didn't," said computer scientist David Jefferson, a member of a state task force on touchscreen voting.
The PCM 500 happened to be the one device that, if it failed, could cripple electronic voting. The encoder's proper function was essential to the operation of more than 17,000 voting machines in California on Tuesday, most of them supplied to Alameda and San Diego counties for $38 million plus annual maintenance fees.
"In the long run, it says the certification process is not worthy of the confidence that has been given to it," Jefferson said. "The certification process is broken. It's not working and was not designed for the era of software-driven elections."