Monday, February 14, 2005

Voting machine modernization will be key challenge for new Secretary of State

Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle featured a story about the challenges ahead for Bruce McPherson if he is confirmed as Secretary of State. The article, by Christian Berthelsen, highlights implementation of new state and federal mandates requiring accessibility and security improvements for California's voting equipment.

California has already been through one phase of modernization -- in the wake of the 2000 Florida punch card vote counting fiasco, California moved swiftly to replace punch cards with more modern paper and electronic voting systems. Today, there are no more prescored punch card ballots used in California. However, in many counties the cure is worse than the disease. Those counties that replaced their paper voting systems with paperless electronic machines lost their ability to independently and publicly audit the results of the computerized vote count.

As a result, the Legislature voted unanimously last year to require that every electronic ballot be backed up with a voter verified paper record. Counties that bought electronic machines are making plans now to upgrade to the paper trail. Other counties that have paper voting systems also need to upgrade to meet the Help America Vote Act's disability requirement that there be at least one voting unit that allows disabled voters to cast a secret ballot without assistance.

Excerpts from the Chronicle story:


Funding is not expected to be a problem for either task, as California officials already have $94 million on hand for upgrade projects and expect to receive another $169 million from the federal government for the work.

But the money has yet to be disbursed to local officials, and the work is expected to take some time, registrars and election experts said Friday. If the deadline is not met, then the state could face lawsuits from voter interest groups.

"It's not a lot of time, and we have a lot of work to do," said Kim Alexander, the president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

What is more, county and state election officials say there is no system currently certified and available that will comply with both the paper trail requirement and all other state laws to accommodate independent voters and non- English speakers. The one system currently certified by the secretary of state, county registrars say, does not have technology qualified by the federal government to handle decline-to-state voters who are allowed to vote in partisan primaries and does not print in languages other than English and Spanish.

"The main issue, I think for the counties right now, is the voting system certification issue," said Connie McCormack, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials and the registrar of the state's largest county, Los Angeles. "We're nine and a half months away from the deadline for compliance, and counties are hamstrung by the inability to purchase federally compliant voting equipment.''

Tony Miller, a staff counsel for the secretary of state's office, said he expects that system -- as well as others -- will be modified and ready for the counties by the deadline.


In a departure from the prickly relationship between county election officials and Shelley -- who greeted them upon entering office by telling them there was a "new sheriff in town" -- McPherson said he wanted to make local registrars his "partners in reform."

That may be difficult. McCormack, the Los Angeles registrar, has adamantly opposed the paper trail system and has suggested the new requirement should be suspended, if only temporarily.

McPherson reiterated his support for the paper trail system Friday, noting that he was a co-author of the legislation -- which passed the Legislature unanimously -- that created the requirement in the first place.

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