Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Miami-Dade's elections chief urges new system

This big news this week comes out of Florida, where the elections supervisor of Miami-Dade is recommending that the county replace its touchscreen voting system with a paper-based, optical scan system. Activists working for election verification have been urging jurisdictions across the country to rely on paper systems rather than electronic. California's Solano County was the first in the state, and perhaps the nation, to move from electronic to paper. If Miami Dade were to do likewise, it may lead other counties to reconsider their decisions as well.

In California, Alameda County will be deciding soon what it will do to meet the state's new voter verified paper trail requirement. The elections department has recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the county negotiate with Diebold to trade in their Accuvote TS machines and replace them with TSx machines with voter verified paper trail printers, at an estimated cost of $5 million. But Alameda and other large California counties faced with meeting the paper trail requirement may do well to consider the ongoing costs of maintaining an all-electronic system.

That's what Miami-Dade did. The county not only looked at security concerns; they also looked at all the costs, from batteries to personnel overtime, in considering their future plans. Knight-Ridder published an excellent story on Sunday providing an analysis of those costs in Miaimi-Dade.

Many counties bought touchscreens because they wanted to save paper ballot printing costs; however, in most if not all jurisdictions those cost savings have been eclipsed by added costs associated with maintaining the electronic equipment and unexpected cost overruns when "glitches" occur.

Excerpts from the Sun-Sentinel's May 28 story about the Miami Dade election supervisor's recommendation:


After repeated embarrassing glitches at the polls, elections officials in Miami-Dade County have recommended scrapping the county's $24.5 million electronic voting system in favor of paper ballots with optical scanners.

Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola made the recommendation Friday in an initial analysis of the county's voting system and the feasibility of adopting a new one. In his report, Sola said that adopting the simpler system could save county taxpayers millions and restore voter confidence by providing a paper record of ballots cast.

In April, an outraged Mayor Carlos Alvarez requested a study on the merits of the optical scan system after revelations that the Elections Department lost hundreds of votes during the March 8 slot machine referendum because of a coding error.

The revelations led former Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan to resign on March 31 and were the latest embarrassing chapter in the county's elections. Sola took over the same day.

Alvarez also fumed that the current system has increased the cost of running an election to about $7 million per election.

Sola's report comes days after a voter advocacy group released a disparaging report that cited a litany of problems during last fall's general elections, among them malfunctioning voting machines.

After County Manager George Burgess reviews Sola's report, the issue could head to county commissioners, who could decide to switch systems Sola estimated that replacing the voting machines with paper ballots and optical scanners would take at least 15 months.


In his report, Sola recommended that county leaders move carefully in exploring purchasing a new system.

But Sola said an initial analysis showed that the county would save more than $13 million over five years with an optical scan system through lower operating costs and the elimination of costly maintenance expenses.


Excerpts from the Knight-Ridder story:


Miami-Dade's controversial paperless voting machines cost taxpayers about $6.6 million to operate during November's presidential election - about twice what officials budgeted.

Meanwhile, Orange County, which has a voting population roughly half the size of Miami-Dade's, spent less than $2 million to run its comparatively low-tech optical scan machines - less than a third of Miami-Dade's cost.

With a newly appointed elections supervisor set to weigh in by the end of this week on whether Miami-Dade should jettison its highly touted, $24.5 million iVotronic touch-screen system, the expenses it generates for each election - which include programming, setting up and securing the machines and printing backup ballots - will be a major factor in the decision.

"The cost is something that we're looking at very closely," said Lester Sola. "That, and voter confidence."

But comparing Miami-Dade's costs with Orange County's "is not apples to apples," said Bill Cowles, Orange County's elections supervisor. For example, Cowles' department listed the major expenses for the November elections at $1.12 million - a number that did not include costs such as overtime for staffers. The single biggest expenditure listed: $526,700 for ballots.

"There are a lot of costs associated with optical scan, too," Cowles said, citing printing costs and ballot storage. Orange County, which includes Orlando, is the most populated county to use optical scan devices as its sole voting apparatus. Manatee County also uses optical scan devices.

Miami-Dade's expenses included $1.4 million in overtime costs alone. Other costs stemmed from a massive voter outreach effort before the election and from officials' deploying technical experts to the polls to make sure touch-screen machines operated properly.

Now, as part of its evaluation of whether to keep the iVotronics, the county will have to balance its costs against the optical scanners - and judge how each would play out in the challenge of running an election in a major urban area, Sola said.

A key selling point for the iVotronic machines in 2002 was the promise that they could cater to the needs of increasingly diverse, logistically complicated elections.

"There was the idea that this would help deal with these issues, when in reality, that may not have been the case," said Sola, who was not part of the elections department at the time.

Sola was tapped to oversee Miami-Dade elections after the unexpected resignation of Constance Kaplan, who left in March after revelations that a computer coding error dumped hundreds of votes in an election that month. The same coding error was detected in several other municipal elections during the past year.

Officials have said the mistake did not affect the elections' outcomes, but County Manager George Burgess directed Sola to look into replacing the iVotronics with the optical scan devices.

Since then, staffers have been crunching numbers.

Here are some of the big-ticket costs associated with the iVotronics:

• Back-up batteries for each of the 7,200 iVotronic machines - at $147 a pop - totaled more than $1 million. Election Systems & Software, the company that makes the iVotronics, recommends replacing the batteries every three to five years.

• Batteries for the 7,600 handheld devices that activate the machines cost $8 each - or $60,800 total.

• Sola estimates that the county would need another 1,000 iVotronics - at about $4,000 apiece - by the next presidential election in 2008. Outfitting the county with an optical scan system could run an estimated $8 million, according to a memo drafted by Kaplan last year.

There also is the issue of the technical support required for the iVotronics.

The original purchasing contract included more than 400 days' worth of project-manager support from ES&S - but those days were gone by the end of the first year, a period that included the disastrous September 2002 primary.

Now, the county negotiates the rate and number of days for ES&S support in advance of elections. That price has been as high as $1,100 a day, per person.

For the 2004 election cycle, the county commission approved a contract that anticipated $294,000 in technical support. ES&S spokeswoman Megan McCormick declined to speak on the specifics of the Miami-Dade contract, citing company policy, but said the county's use of support staff "was consistent with what we have in other counties."

In Broward, which also uses ES&S iVotronics, the county spent slightly more than $100,000 for the November election in support from the Omaha-based company, with rates up to $1,800 a day, said deputy elections supervisor Gisela Salas.

"It's not like running a punch-card election. It's a lot more work and resources," she said. "But we're pretty comfortable with what we're doing."

Thursday, May 26, 2005

PPIC poll finds Governor lacks support for special election

The big question in the California elections community these days is whether we will have a special election this Fall. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has several initiatives he is qualifiying for the ballot, and, as governor, has the authority to call a special election when an initiative qualifies. The Governor's proposals are not the only measures that have qualified for the ballot -- there are several other initiatives that have been qualified or are pending signature verification. (See the Secretary of State's Initiative Update for more details.)

One of the main incentives for the Governor to call a special election rather than wait for the June 2006 statewide primary is that he wants a redistricting of California's political districts prior to that election. There's a considerable amount of debate about whether that's feasible. (See the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials' analysis for an explanation of the obstacles.)

Now comes a new statewide survey, from the Public Policy Institute of California, which finds that California voters, by a 2-1 margin oppose a Fall special election.

Here are excerpts from John Wildermuth's article about the survey in today's San Francisco Chronicle:


If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls a special election this November, he will have to face voters angry at the prospect of yet another statewide ballot, a new poll showed today.

By a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, California adults would rather see Schwarzenegger's government reform plan go on the ballot for the scheduled June 2006 primary election than this fall.

"Since January, we have seen the support for a special election drop by 12 percentage points,'' said Marc Baldassare, director of the Public Policy Institute of California poll. "The more (voters) have heard about the governor's initiatives, the less they are convinced this is something we need to do this year.''

The governor and his allies have initiatives on redistricting, teacher tenure and the state budget nearly ready to go on a special election ballot. Schwarzenegger must decide by June 13 whether he wants to call that election for Nov. 8.

Schwarzenegger won't have an easy time getting voters behind his initiative efforts. On redistricting, for example, while 41 percent of likely voters support his effort to take it out of the hands of the Legislature and give it to a neutral panel of retired judges, 40 percent oppose the plan.


"It's a pretty disappointed group of Californians in this poll,'' said Baldassare. "They're unhappy with the governor and the Legislature and not happy with the way the state is heading.''

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Stanford students offer photo essays of election equipment and procedures

Stanford Professor David Dill's students have compiled some wonderful photo essays of Santa Clara County's election office warehouse and voting machine set-up procedures. It's a terrific collection of information and photos that show and explain step-by-step what goes on behind the scenes prior to an election. The essays include lots of close-up photos of Sequoia voting equipment.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

High school hackers

My local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, ran a story over the weekend about a rash of hacking incidents in area high schools. According to the article, "four incidents at three high schools have been reported in the Elk Grove and Natomas school districts during the past seven months. Seven students have been implicated and four have been arraigned."

The story caught my attention and made me wonder -- if high school kids can hack into school computers and change grades, how hard could it really be to hack into an elections office computer and change records, or votes? Are computer security procedures in county election offices any better than what you'd find at a high school campus? I would like to think so, but given all the known security risks present in our voting systems, it seems to me that there is plenty of opportunity for any number of security breaches.

Excerpts from the Bee story:


As the Sheldon High School teacher logged on to her classroom computer, she didn't know that every keystroke of her password was being secretly recorded.

In an effort to improve their grade-point averages, three students reportedly obtained a keystroke recording device and software to help them hack into the school computer system. They began changing their grades to A's and altering discipline records last May, and they were caught in October, according to officials.


The three Sheldon students, ages 15, 16, and 17, and a 17-year-old Laguna Creek senior, who was expelled in February, are accused of using hacking devices and software to break into the schools' computer system.

The Laguna Creek senior who was suspended is accused of misusing a password and a log-on a teacher provided him for another purpose. No charges have been filed.

The two arraigned 17-year-olds from Natomas High School obtained an administrator's password from a careless staff member, officials said.

According to investigative reports in the Sheldon case, the hacking resulted in the changing of at least 12 grades and the students left a trail of computer messages.

"You changed it to an A-, right? An A+ is too obvious for my parents," wrote one of the students in computer records obtained by police.

At Laguna Creek, the suspended senior is accused of changing the grades of about three dozen students.

At Natomas, the two students are accused of changing their grades to A's, but they inadvertently changed the grades of each of the district's 18,697 students, said Natomas Unified School District student coordinator Rick Rezinas. Then, they deleted all the files in an attempt to cover their tracks, he said.

After the files were deleted the computer crashed, which led investigators to the students. The deleted files were recovered from a backup system.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Tom Wilkey to serve as EAC executive director

Last week the Election Assistance Commission announced that Tom Wilkey will be the federal agency's executive director. According to a story in New York's Newsday, Wilkey will be paid $131,400 per year and begins his four year term on June 20th.

Mr. Wilkey has long been involved with election institutions such as the Election Center and NASED, the National Association of State Election Directors. Up until recently, these two institutions were responsible for overseeing federal testing of voting equipment, often in a nontransparent manner, much to the disappointment of election verification activists. Hopefully in his new role Mr. Wilkey will be more responsive to the public's need for accountability and transparency in voting systems and voting system qualification.

According to the Newsday article, Mr Wilkey also has "served as executive director of New York's state board from 1992-2003 and has worked in election administration for 34 years, starting his career in Buffalo as an elections clerk for Erie County."

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

CVF web page provides information on Los Angeles Mayoral Election

Today is the runoff in the contest for mayor of Los Angeles. The California Voter Foundation staff has assembled a page of information and links to provide the public with convenient access to election information. Be sure to take a look at the L.A. City Ethics Commission's campaign finance data, which provides an easy-to-understand picture of overall campaign fundraising and spending to help the public follow the money.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Andrew Gumbel's recent piece in the Nation on Electoral Standards

Reporter Andrew Gumbel published an article recently in the Nation on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) new report on its observations of the U.S.' 2004 presidential election. This report has received practically no coverage in the media, and is not easy to locate on the OSCE's web site (you can find it here).

In his article on this report, Andrew Gumbel provides an international perspective on the OSCE's observation efforts of the U.S.' byzantine electoral process. Excerpts below:


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been monitoring elections in emerging democracies ever since the fall of the Berlin wall, but now it has done something different and uniquely controversial. It has turned its attention to the United States, issuing a report that highlights numerous areas in which this past November's presidential and Congressional elections failed to meet international standards.

One would have thought the voter reform movement in this country would jump at the chance to see the United States judged by the same criteria as Ukraine, Georgia or Kyrgyzstan--especially since the report finds it badly wanting. Here, in black and white, is authoritative proof that the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, the uneven rules applied to provisional balloting, the unreliability of voter registration procedures and the dual role of election supervisors who also help run partisan political campaigns are not merely objectionable but also violate international norms to which the United States, as a participating member of the fifty-five-nation OSCE, is a leading signatory.

And yet the OSCE's twenty-nine-page report, published in April has not generated a single column inch in any US newspaper. There are both good and bad reasons for this. For a start, the report has come out five months after the election, virtually guaranteeing its lack of topicality. It is also written in excruciatingly careful prose, belying the pointedness of its conclusions. There is no summary sentence stating explicitly that the United States has failed to meet its international commitments. (That has to be inferred.) Nor does it allude to the fact that Ohio was just a few tens of thousands of votes away from another Florida-style meltdown. This is a document that takes every conceivable step to avoid being controversial, even as it delivers its damning assessment.

Therein, though, lies the real story. The OSCE report has been the hottest of political hot potatoes for months, its reticence the result of an escalating diplomatic battle pitting the United States against the countries of the former Soviet Union, not unlike the cold war standoffs of old.

OSCE sources complain that US officials made "inappropriate" phone calls in the run-up to the report's publication, in the hope that its conclusions would not come down too hard on the dysfunctions of its electoral system. Russia and the other former Soviet republics, meanwhile, have accused both the United States and the OSCE itself of a glaring double standard--making no bones about criticizing the conduct of their elections (in Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan) while skirting over the inadequacies of voting in the world's sole remaining superpower.

Documentary film about elections to air in San Francisco May 17 & 21

A new documentary film, Call it Democracy, by Matt Kohn, will air two times next week during the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. Matt Kohn's film examines electoral reform in the United States and features interviews with many people involved in voting technology reform, including me. I'll be attending the screening on Tuesday, May 17 at 7:15 p.m. at The Little Roxie, 3117 16th Street at Valencia in San Francisco. The second screening will be on Saturday, May 21 at 5:10 p.m. and includes a discussion with Professor David Dill and Wired News' Kim Zetter. Tickets are on sale in advance and advance purchase is recommended. See the film festival's web site for more details.

Friday, May 6, 2005

CA SoS McPherson travels to DC to meet with the EAC

Yesterday California's new Secretary of State, Bruce McPherson, was in Washington, D.C. to meet with members of the federal Election Assistance Commission. His purpose was two-fold: to secure the rest of California's HAVA money; and to allay the EAC's concerns that past mismanagement of these funds will be corrected. Zachary Coile's story in today's San Francisco Chronicle provides more details.

Excerpts below:


McPherson's task is daunting: He is taking over the agency just as California and other states face fast-approaching deadlines from Congress to replace outdated voting machines and build a new statewide voter registration database to combat voter fraud.

"You've heard the old saw about building an airplane as it rolls down the runway?" said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks election reform in the states. "McPherson is trying to climb in the cockpit as it rolls down the runway. ... He knows the issues or at least is coming up to speed, but he's facing a huge task over the next several months."

California must have its voter registration database ready by Jan. 1, and even McPherson admits the state is behind schedule. After scrapping a plan to build a new $40 million database, the state will now upgrade its current system, Calvoter, to allow faster entry of new voter registrations by election officials in the state's 58 counties.

"We're moving ahead incrementally," McPherson said, but added the state will barely meet the federal rules and will need to improve the database later.


The political scandal that engulfed Shelley last year led to further delays. The Legislature and the governor effectively froze Shelley's spending authority in August after the allegations first surfaced.

County election officials also complained that Shelley's micromanaging style delayed the flow of federal money. Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Connie McCormack, who joined McPherson in Washington, said the new secretary of state has assured counties they will get their money more quickly in the future.

California expected to gain about $350 million of the $3.1 billion appropriated by Congress for election reform after the disputed 2000 presidential race. The state has received about $180 million thus far, but is waiting for the remaining $170 million.

On Thursday, McPherson gave Election Assistance Commission Chair Gracia Hillman and Vice Chair Paul DeGregorio a certificate of compliance, signed by Schwarzenegger, which states that California is following federal voting rules.

The document was the first step toward gaining California's remaining federal voting funds. Hillman also asked McPherson to send a letter next week detailing how his office has responded to a state auditor's report in December, which harshly criticized Shelley's handling of federal funds.

Hillman said she expected the $170 million will be released shortly, calling it "money California desperately needs." She added that the commissioners have been impressed with McPherson's initial moves, including hiring experienced election officials as his top deputies.

The commission, which lacks its own investigative staff, is expected to sign a contract this week with an audit team from the Interior Department's inspector general's office to conduct the probe of Shelley's spending practices. Hillman said she expects it will take four months to complete the inquiry.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Washington State enacts paper trail law

Yesterday Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed a package of election reform bills which includes a voter verified paper record requirement for electronic voting machines. The bills were signed at a time when her opponent in last fall's election won a legal victory in his efforts to overturn the results of that election.

Excerpts from Associated Press story by Rachel La Corte:


Gov. Christine Gregoire on Tuesday signed a batch of bills introduced as a result of her contested election, including measures that will streamline election standards across the state and enhance voter registration records.


Under the measures, counties will have an easier time switching to all-mail voting; those with touch-screen voting machines must produce a paper record of votes; and the secretary of state's office will review county election procedures every three years.


The measures were signed a day after Republicans won a significant victory in their legal battle to overturn Gregoire's win. A judge in Wenatchee decided Monday that Republicans can use a type of statistical analysis to try to prove that illegal votes swayed the election that put Gregoire in the governor's mansion with just 129 votes out of 2.9 million cast.


Joining Gregoire at the bill signing event in her conference room were several lawmakers who crafted the bills, and Secretary of State Sam Reed, who headed up her election reform task force earlier this year.

"I feel a sense of accomplishment because it was the most difficult political environment because of this gubernatorial recount and all of its repercussions," Reed said after the bill signings.


The omnibus election reform bill is Senate Bill 5499, the voter registration record-keeping bill is Senate Bill 5743, the paper trail bill is Senate Bill 5395, the all-mail voting bill is House Bill 1754, the out-of-state voters' information bill is Senate Bill 5565 and the election law manual bill is Senate Bill 5564.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Nevada lawmakers question need to replace Sequoia Advantage e-voting machines

Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller, the first election official in the country to implement electronic voting machines with a voter verified paper trail statewide, urged state lawmakers on Monday to allocate $15 million to upgrade Clark County's electronic voting equipment.

Clark County, home to Las Vegas as well as 80 percent of Nevada's residents, was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to purchase paperless electronic voting machines. Last year, Secretary of State Heller contracted with Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems to purchase the company's "Edge" touchscreen machines with a voter verified paper record feature included. The new touchscreens with printers were used throughout the state in last year's elections; in Clark County, a mix of new machines and the older Advantage machines were used.

Heller wants to replace the old Advantage machines in Clark County with newer Edge machines equipped with the Sequoia printer, called the "Verivote". However, some state lawmakers are balking at the expense and say the upgrade isn't necessary.

Here are some excerpts from the May 2 Associated Press story by Elizabeth White:


A Nevada Senate panel on Monday questioned the need for new voting machines in the Las Vegas-area, saying the county's current technology may not have to be replaced.


"What if that cartridge fails?" Heller asked after the hearing, noting a number of instances in the 2004 general elections across the country where several kinds of voting machines allegedly failed to record accurate votes.

Sixteen of Nevada's 17 counties used only the newer voter-verified machines - bought with federal dollars through the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA - last fall. There are pending requests for more federal funding that would be used to replace the older models in Clark County.


Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said that since the old and new machines comply with HAVA, the state has the option to replace the older models as they break or wait until federal funding is available. He also said both versions of machines offer the voter a way to review their ballot on the screen before casting it for good.

"The verification that's offered here is illusory at best," Beers said of the new models. "You do have a visual presentation of how your whole ballot looks with either system."

Beers said granting the funding request would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, but Heller said that without giving voters the option to review their ballot on paper, "it's garbage in, garbage out."

"If you're accusing me of blowing money, please show me how," Heller continued.

Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, wondered why Clark County can't pay for the machines with its own revenues.

"I just hate the thought of throwing all of those away," she said, adding that one option might be to replace some of the machines so voters can choose to use those if they're worried.

Dan Musgrove, a lobbyist for Clark County, said the county originally thought the machines' manufacturer would be able to retrofit the old machines to provide voter verification, but that was deemed to be more expensive than replacing the machines altogether.

Denying the request would mean the county would be required to pay for something out of its own pocket other counties didn't have to, Musgrove said.

While Beers said he hasn't received any complaints from his constituents about lack of voter verification, Larry Lomax, Clark County's registrar of voters, said he received about 100.

And Heller told lawmakers that $15 million is a small price to pay to secure democracy and raise the level of reliability.

"I think it would be tremendously irresponsible to tell Clark County voters, 'You're not valuable enough to verify your own votes but the rest of the state can'," he said.