Thursday, August 25, 2005

Assembly passes SB 370; Alameda plans to go with "blended" system

This morning the Assembly passed SB 370/Bowen. The initial vote was 46-19 though the final total may change before the day is over, as Assembly Members may add on votes before today's session adjourns. Though the vote was not unanimous, it also was not partisan; insiders in the Capitol inform me that the Assembly Republican Caucus took a "support" position on this bill (caucus analyses are not available to the public).

Meanwhile, Alameda County is making plans to issue a "Request for Information" from voting equipment vendors. Alameda's course of action has changed dramatically since June, when the board had approved a plan to spend $6 million to upgrade their Diebold electronic voting machines and stick with all-electronic balloting. Now the county is planning to go instead with a "blended" system, mixing paper ballots and electronic ballots in their polling places. The county is also allowing other vendors to compete for the new contract. More details about these developments are featured in Ian Hoffman's article in today's Oakland Tribune. Excerpts are below.


Alameda County — the first large West Coast county to gamble on Diebold Election Systems Inc. and its electronic voting machines — is weighing whether to end that experiment, going with a more paper-based voting system and perhaps another supplier.

County officials are contacting voting-system vendors this week and asking whether they can provide a so-called "blended" voting system, with a winning bidder to be chosen in November.

Alameda is headed the way of many large counties — toward a hybrid of optical scanners for paper ballots and either electronic touchscreens or computerized ballot-marking devices for handicapped voters.

If vendors can supply such a system, this November's special election will be the county's last with Diebold touchscreens as the only voting equipment in the polling place.

Diebold remains the nation's largest voting system supplier and is selling thousands of its touchscreens in Mississippi, Utah and Ohio. And the firm still may try selling Alameda County on a new system.

But the county's move away from touchscreens and toward other vendors is a blow to Diebold after a two-year string of missteps and mistakes by the firm.

County elections officials stoutly defended the company in 2003 when Diebold computers awarded thousands of votes to the wrong candidates, and in 2004 when Diebold exerted last-minute pressure on the state to approve voting equipment only to have it break down in a quarter of Alameda County polling places.

In June, county supervisors signaled a willingness to increase their original $12 million investment in Diebold equipment by approving negotiations for purchase of newer touchscreens for an additional $6 million.

But the last straw came in July, when state tests of 96 of those new touchscreens revealed paper jams, system crashes and screen freezes in 28 percent of the machines. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson rejected the machine for use in California.

Since then, sales reps from other vendors have come knocking at the door of acting county elections chief Elaine Ginnold. She and her staff have test-driven several other voting systems. She will ask county supervisors Tuesday for the go-ahead to solicit bids on the new hybrid system in September.

The move to a paper-based voting system makes sense, Ginnold said.

"One reason is the cost of electronic machines is quite high, and in the light of changing state and federal regulations we don't see the prudence of spending a lot of money on touchscreens at this time," she said.

An equal reason comes from the county's voters. Almost 40 percent are voting on paper absentee ballots, and this proportion of mail-in voting is rising with every general election.

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