Ian Hoffman of the Alameda Newspaper Group wrote this article about Monday's hearing at the Secretary of State's office regarding certification of the Diebold TSx voting system. It is featured below.
With a quarter of California counties poised to buy Diebold's latest touch-screen voting system, Diebold critics urged its rejection Monday, calling it open to fraud and inaccessible to disabled voters.
If the touch screen isn't approved, most California counties will miss the Jan. 1 deadline to begin offering handicapped-accessible voting machines that also provide a backup paper record.
Fifteen county officials, including elections chiefs in Alameda, Marin, San Joaquin and Los Angeles, wrote Secretary of State Bruce McPherson last week to "urge that you act as quickly as possible ... to ensure our ability to comply with the looming federal and state deadline."
Yet Diebold employees and local elections officials were dismayed to hear the company portrayed as an "ethically challenged" and "corrupt" maker of voting machinery designed to fix elections.
The McKinney, Texas-based firm has spent more than two years trying to win permanent California approval for its AccuVote TSx and undergone the most rigorous state testing of a voting system.
"People have made this a personal issue with Diebold, and they don't see a company that has made improvements," said San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters Debbie Hench, who wants to use more than 1,600 of the Diebold touch screens in the June primary. "I don't think there's a vendor around that could satisfy these people."
Diebold has added stronger passwords and encryption, but opponents say the voting system remains vulnerable to a simple hack. With unobserved access to voting computers and insertion of as little as 60 lines of code, a computer expert for Black Box Voting Inc. says he has been able to change vote tallies for an entire jurisdiction.
Jim March, a board member of the group, called the vulnerabilities "a whole set of aces up the sleeve for an election official who wants to cheat."
Before considering approval of the system, officials at the California secretary of state's office have agreed to test those claims by letting Black Box Voting try to hack into the Diebold system on Nov. 30.
"The places where there are known vulnerabilities in this system should raise a yellow flag before we certify this system," said state Sen. Debra Bowen, a Marina del Rey Democrat expected to challenge Secretary of State Bruce McPherson as the state's chief elections officer.
State law says a voting system cannot be approved for use in California unless it is secure. So far, state voting-system technicians have concluded the system is secure enough. What could matter more in McPherson's decision on the Diebold system is opposition from advocates for visually impaired and physically disabled voters, for whom most counties say they are buying the Diebold system to serve.
Dan Kysor, director of governmental affairs for the California Council for the Blind, and Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, said the Diebold system is not accessible enough.
Electronic touch screens have brought disabled voters to the brink of casting their ballots privately, without assistance, by offering an audio version of the electronic ballot and various means of marking their choices. But Diebold's latest touch screen lacks a key tool, a sip-and-puff device for physically disabled voters, and it is designed in a way that makes it hard for visually impaired voters to initiate the voting machine, Favuzzi said.
The machine has a printer and rolls of cash register-style thermal paper for producing paper trails, or printed records of ballots that voters can double-check for accuracy and elections officials can use for recounts. But visually impaired voters can't read the printouts, and they are not given such independent verification.
"We actually expect to have access to the verification process," Favuzzi told state elections officials Monday. "We are interested in having accessible voting machines, and this one does not really seem to fit."
Rejection or delay of approval for the Diebold system would put California counties in league with counties throughout the nation that are likely to miss deadlines for handicapped-accessible voting under the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The National Association of Counties recently pressed Congress to roll back those deadlines by two years, citing the lack of available systems.