Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Alameda County supervisors approve registrar's plans to swap Diebold machines

Yesterday I attended a hearing of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, where they considered the county's plans to meet federal and state accessibility and security requirements for their voting system.

It was a disappointing day. I was hoping the supervisors would request a cost-benefit analysis of various options they were considering, such as replacing only some of their Diebold TS machines with newer TSx machines equipped with a voter-verified paper audit trail. Instead they voted 3-1, with one excused supervisor, to allow the registrar to begin negotiating a contract with Diebold to replace the county's entire inventory of 4,000 TS machines with TSx machines, which have not yet been certified by the state.

Throughout the meeting, there was confusion, misinformation and disinformation flying from all quarters. The registrar, county counsel, Diebold, and the activists who spoke all made various statements that were confusing or misleading. For example, the supervisors were considering a "blended" system, with paper ballots and one or two touchscreens per polling place. In her report to the supervisors, acting Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold stated that "the County Counsel advised that use of this option could raise an equal protection issue with disabled voters who would not have access to the same system as every other voter." When one of the supervisors asked the County Counsel staff to clarify, she responded first by saying this option would raise an equal protection problem, then went on to say it wouldn't. When people in the audience asked for clarification, the President of the Board, Keith Carson, asked her to clarify, and she stated that it would not raise an equal protectioon issue.

Shortly after that, another County Counsel staffer further clarified by saying that his office's statement in the staff report was incomplete and did not reflect his office's advice, only part of it. He went on to say that the advice given to the registrar was that the blended option did not violate the principles of equal protection if meaningful access is given across the board (i.e. if all voters can choose electronic or paper ballots).

Several Diebold staff people spoke on behalf of the company. Mark Radke of Diebold read an excerpt from the San Diego Grand Jury investigation into that county's March 2004 voting technology meltdown, when half of the counties polling places were inoperable at some time during the day due to equipment problems. Radke read the part of the report that said no problems were found with the TSx machine. Of course, he left out any description of problems with other Diebold equipment, such as the smart card encoder that was used in San Diego in that election which had multiple flaws that prevented people from voting.

There were many passionate activists who attended the meeting. Some made very eloquent statements, and some had experience as pollworkers. Several got up and demanded the supervisors hand-count paper ballots and opposed using any kind of computer technology in the voting process. Others demanded open source software. While it's understandable to me why these opinions are popular among many voting technology reform activists, it was not at all likely that the supervisors would have embraced either of these suggestions.

Supervisor Keith Carson, the board's president, asked many pointed questions of the registrar and of Diebold and to his credit was persistent in getting straight answers. At one point, Carson asked Radke to outline the most serious problem they've had with their voting machine. Radke went on to talk about all the testing their machines undergo. Carson tried to clarify his question, asking if the problems Alameda has experienced were human error, and weren't due to Diebold's technology? Radke replied that the architecture of their system is designed to protect against problems. Carson then asked, "So you are saying no?", to which Radke replied, "We have never lost a vote." Carson again asked, "So, no?", and finally, Radke said no.

The meeting started at 12:40 p.m., with no lunch break and went straight through the afternoon. As the day wore on, people in the room clearly were growing irritable and impatient. The public comment section of the meeting ended around 3:30 p.m., and Carson asked if anyone wanted to make a motion. No one on the board said anything. Then one of the supervisors, Gail Steele, suggested they wait until the TSx is certified by the state before moving forward. She got no response from other supervisors on that. The supervisors had a discussion on their various options, and it was clear that no one on the board wanted to make a motion. Finally, with some prompting from Carson, Steele moved option 2, which is to replace all the TS machines with TSx machines. Carson voted against it, but didn't say why until the other three supervisors present voted for it.

The supervisors also voted in support of having outside technical expertise on Alameda County's Voting Equipment Committee, and to conduct an independent poll of Alameda voters to measure their voting system preferences and level of voter confidence.

My sense by the end of the day was that the supervisors were reluctant to move forward with Diebold but were too confused, tired and weary from the hours of testimony and complicated information being passed on to them that they just wanted to be done with the issue. An audio archive of the meeting is available online. More details on yesterday's meeting are featured in Ian Hoffman's story in the Oakland Tribune, excerpted below.


Despite stout public opposition, Alameda County will likely stick with Diebold electronic voting machines for the next congressional and presidential elections.

County supervisors gave the go-ahead Tuesday to negotiate a $5.4 million deal for Diebold's latest touch-screen machine, known as the TSx, equipped with a printer so voters can verify their electronic choices.

Supervisor Gail Steele said she can't operate a computer, but she's able to vote on Diebold's machines and argues "it's the way of the future."


E-voting critics lambasted Diebold and touch-screen voting for most of a four-hour hearing, saying fully computerized voting was fraught with secrecy, lax testing and a lack of voter confidence.

"We're basically talking about secret code, secret testing by the vendors and secret results," said Barbara Simons, who teaches computer science at Stanford University. She advocated paper ballots read by optical scanners at each polling place. Others wanted no machines at all, just human eyes and hands on the ballots.

"There is no need for electronic technology of any kind," said retired psychiatrist Don Goldmacher, co-chairman of the Voting Rights Coalition.

They reminded supervisors that nowhere has encountered more difficulty with Diebold and its voting systems than Alameda County, with Diebold products erroneously giving thousands of Democrat votes to a Socialist in one election and breaking down by the hundreds in another election.


"I really do trust our registrar of voters, who really does know a lot about this," Steele said, "And I really don't think there's one thing they would do if they thought it was illegal."

Steele led a majority in rejecting an equal or lower-cost option of using optically scanned paper ballots at the polling places, with one or two touch-screens for visually handicapped voters. Ginnold said

pollworkers have a tough enough time handling one voting system.

"It's more the confusion at the polling site. I'm just really concerned about that, and that could make us look bad," said Supervisor Nate Miley. "I'm just for having some experts take a look at this and doing a poll to see what the people say."

The sole dissent came from board President Keith Carson, who said no voting system is perfect or error-free.

"It's not an anti-touch-screen or anti-electronic voting with me," he said. "To me verifiability is the fundamental issue here, because whether you are physically challenged or using a different language there has to be a way at the end of the day to verify your vote."

Los Angeles County uses paper ballots, and Alameda County would do well to explore the same, he said. Instead, Carson suggested there is "entrapment" of the county by Diebold and the press of new laws and elections that make it hard to seek an alternative. "We've already been going down the slippery route with Diebold," he said.

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