After March problems, fewer voters will see electronic machines this fall. But counties are as resolute as ever to switch from paper ballots.
By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2004
Counties across California are preparing for another election day, as determined as ever to convert from paper to electronic voting. But because of a series of blunders in the March primary, fewer Californians will cast their ballots on touch-screen voting machines in November.
About 30% of the state's voters — 4.5 million people in 10 counties, including Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — are expected to use electronic voting machines in November, down from about 40% in the spring.
Voter-rights advocates say they are encouraging voters in counties with electronic voting to cast absentee ballots or request paper ballots at polling places because of concerns over the new technology.
"People are totally freaked out, and for good reason," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which promotes the responsible use of voting technology. "When people vote, they want their votes to count. That's why we're going to make sure California voters know they have a right to vote on paper."
Indeed, most California voters in November will still cast ballots by filling in circles on paper ballots that will be counted by optical scanning machines.
In Alameda County, election officials are entangled in a lawsuit with the Texas-based company that produced its touch-screen voting machines, Diebold Election Systems. Alameda County and the state attorney general say Diebold misled them about the security and reliability of the voting system and are seeking millions of dollars in compensation.
There also were questions in Alameda County about problems in the March election when polling-place machines that encode ballots malfunctioned, leaving some voters unable to call up the appropriate ballot. A similar problem created lengthy delays at polling places in San Diego County.
Brad Clark, Alameda County's registrar of voters, said he is confident that an upgraded version of the Diebold machines is accurate and secure.
The county is using a different style of encoding machine in November, and Clark said he does not expect a repeat of the March problems.
"I have a good level of confidence," he said. "The touch screens themselves worked well."
Other counties say they remain unconcerned about reports that electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud. They point to numerous safeguards, including the sealing of machines before and after the polls close and the fact that no electronic voting machine in the state is accessible through the Internet. Fraud, they note, was more likely to occur with paper ballots.
"Anything is theoretically possible, but the probability of those situations happening is exceedingly small," said Orange County's Rodermund. "We're very confident. There's no way someone could get in and tamper with the system without us knowing about it."
Said Clark of Alameda County: "These people go around saying paper is the panacea. I think they've forgotten about stolen ballot boxes and stuffed ballot boxes."