Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Court hears Riverside County e-voting recount appeal

I've been offline for the past few days attending the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws' (COGEL) annual conference in Boston. Meanwhile, yesterday in Riverside a state appeals court heard Riverside county supervisorial candidate Linda Soubirous' case involving her request for a recount of the votes from her 2004 contest. Excerpts from Dave Downey's article in the North County Times are featured below.


Lawyers for the county and a candidate who lost a bid for county office clashed in court Tuesday over whether an electronic-vote recount was mishandled.

The hearing ended with state judges saying they would rule shortly in Linda Soubirous' appeal of a 2004 Riverside County Superior Court decision, which found that the county's former elections chief did not abuse her authority when she refused to consult certain information for the recount.

A three-judge panel from the California Court of Appeal, 4th District, has 90 days to issue a decision, and observers said a ruling is likely within 45 days.

Soubirous, a Lake Mathews resident, finished a distant second to Supervisor Bob Buster in a three-way primary race in March 2004 that also featured former Lake Elsinore Mayor Kevin Pape. If Buster had finished with less than 50 percent of the vote, she could have forced a November runoff between the two of them, but Buster finished with just a few dozen votes more than half and avoided the runoff.

Then, Soubirous demanded a recount.

The recount upheld Buster as the winner with a bare majority of votes. Soubirous then filed suit in July of last year, asserting officials did little more than "press the reprint button" when they rechecked ballots cast on electronic touch-screen machines.

Riverside was the first large county in the nation to adopt electronic voting in 2000, when it purchased 4,250 touchscreen machines for $14 million.

Early on, few concerns were expressed about them. As their popularity spread, so did concern that the machines could malfunction or be hacked into. That led California officials to pass a law requiring counties using touch-screens to keep backup paper records of electronic votes starting next year and use them for recounts.

Soubirous' attorney Gregory Luke, however, argued in court Tuesday that the new state law didn't erase all concerns about electronic voting. Luke contended there is still a need for a court to compel Riverside and other counties to consult all relevant backup information to make sure a recount is accurate.

When Soubirous asked former Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend to recount votes in the 2004 race with Buster, lawyers asked to see ballot information stored in the touch-screen machines used in the election. But, the county refused and, instead, chose to recount electronic votes solely by consulting the cartridges that recorded people's votes.

Attorney Charles Bell, arguing on behalf of Riverside County, maintained Townsend had wide latitude to decide what information sources to use for the recount.

"What you seem to be suggesting is that this is totally up to the discretion of the registrar," said Justice Jeffrey King, who asked Bell several pointed questions on that subject.

Bell said it would not be a good idea to open up all records because that would subject the county to the scrutiny of anti-electronic-voting groups seeking to find anything wrong with the touch-screen system to advance their cause.

"Is there anything wrong that?" King asked.

At the same time, the justices questioned why Soubirous was still pursuing the case, because the election ended long ago and Buster started his fourth term more than a year ago.

"So what are we going to do? Move Mr. Buster out? Isn't she out of luck?" asked King. "This is something that this court can't remedy. It's just water under the bridge."

Luke countered that his client wasn't looking to boot Buster out, but rather to prevent Riverside County from keeping vital electronic-vote information from people who request recounts in the future.

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