By Dave Downey, North County Times, August 7, 2004
Activists in California's sizzling electronic-voting debate and a lawsuit by a losing candidate in the March primary suggest Riverside County has repeatedly resisted attempts to make the touchscreen ballots more tamper-proof, at a time when rapid technological advance is bringing sweeping change to elections.
"There has been a consistent motion in the opposite direction," said David Dill, Stanford University computer science professor and founder of an activist group, VerifiedVoting.org, in an interview last week.
Kim Alexander, president and founder of the Davis-based nonprofit nonpartisan California Voter Foundation and a member, with Dill, on a state electronic voting task force in 2003, said several times over the last four years county officials have refused to take steps to preserve public confidence in the most fundamental of rights: the right to vote.
Mischelle Townsend, who guided the county through its transition from paper to electronic ballots and retired July 16, sharply disagreed. She pointed to a record of what she characterized as 29 straight problem-free elections since Riverside County led the Golden State in moving toward touchscreens as proof that the county has done just the opposite, and gone the extra mile.
Townsend also cited surveys which show voter confidence in the machines in the 95 percent to 99 percent range.
Roy Wilson, chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, flatly rejected critics' charges.
"As for a pattern of trying to keep the machines secret? Absolutely not," Wilson said.
The lawsuit that suggested a pattern of resisting attempts to make elections more open was filed by Linda Soubirous, a candidate who narrowly lost a bid in March to force incumbent County Supervisor Bob Buster to face a runoff in the November general election.
"We don't care about Linda Soubirous' politics," Dill said. Rather, he said, his decision to sign on to the suit was about establishing a strong legal precedent for transparency in electronic voting.
"I am mystified by their (the county's) resistance," he said. "This is not a criminal prosecution of Riverside County. This is just an effort to see the backup information from the election."
The irony, said Alexander, the voter foundation president, is that the backup sources Townsend has touted as safeguards to prove there is no need for a paper audit trail are the same sources she kept from Soubirous.
"I find that to be very troubling and disappointing," Alexander said.
The suit states that, in effect, county election officials did nothing more than "press the 'print' button on their system a second time ---- an empty gesture functionally equivalent to a mere re-announcement of the previously proclaimed election results."
The suit also suggests the recount handling is part of a pattern dating to the county's March 2000 purchase of an ACV Edge touchscreen system manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems. Among the issues raised:
- County officials agreed to buy 4,250 machines for nearly $15 million. But they chose to equip 200 touchscreens with printers capable of producing printouts of every ballot cast, Alexander said, and missed a chance at the outset to provide a complete backup paper record.
- After the disastrous 2000 presidential election and the horror stories about "hanging chads" on punch-card ballots in Florida, the California Legislature passed a measure designed to accelerate the Golden State's move to modern voting systems. The measure, Proposition 41, was placed on the March 2002 ballot and, with voters' approval, state funding was made available for half the cost of new systems.
Having already purchased their system by then, Riverside County sought a reimbursement through the act.
But there was a problem: In order to receive bond funding, the measure said touchscreens had to "produce, at the time the voter marks his or her ballot or at the time the polls are closed, a paper version or representation of the voted ballot or of all the ballots cast on a unit of the voting system."
In late 2001, the county successfully lobbied then-Secretary of State Bill Jones to interpret the law as to mean that touchscreens "merely had the theoretical capacity to produce a paper audit trail" as opposed to being ready to actually print ballots, the suit states. In December 2002, the county received a check for $7.5 million.
- In February of this year, new Secretary of State Kevin Shelley issued several directives to election chiefs in California's 15 electronic-voting counties that were designed to prevent problems in the March primary. One directive called for state experts to be given access to selected touchscreens on Election Day. But Riverside and nine other counties refused to follow the plan.
- And, in early May, Riverside became the first county to openly defy and sue Shelley over his April 30 order requiring electronic-voting counties to give voters the option of casting ballots by paper in November. Later joined by three other counties, Riverside was rebuffed by a federal judge in July.