Monday, January 30, 2006

Secretary of State requests voting system contingency plans

California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson last week sent a memo to all county registrars in the state asking for information about what, if any contingency plans the counties have if their voting equipment does not receive a favorable review by the indepedent testing authority, according to this article by Shane Mizer in Sunday's Eureka Reporter (Humboldt County). Excerpts are featured below.


Humboldt County election officials could see longer hours come election night if the Independent Testing Authority decides to issue an unfavorable review of a component found inside Diebold Inc.’s AccuVote-OS voting machine. In anticipation of the results, expected to be received by Secretary of State Bruce McPherson on Tuesday, local election officials are crossing their fingers.

“There’s always hand counts, but I don’t see that, (considering) the time involved, as a desirable alternative at all,” Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich said.

On Tuesday, the day after McPherson paid a visit to Humboldt County election officials and the Board of Supervisors, a memo from the secretary of state’s office was sent to all registrars of voters throughout the state with a questionnaire attached designed to gauge what sort of contingency plans counties will adopt if the ITA does not recommend certifying Diebold’s machine for the upcoming elections.

The request for a contingency plan came as a surprise to election officials, considering that the county is being forced to troubleshoot a problem that the federal and state guidelines have only recently created.

Up until now, Crnich has assumed that the only ramifications of the ITA results would be to cause an extended delay in the certification of Diebold’s AccuVote-TSX system.

If approved for state certification, the county plans to purchase the AccuVote-TSX machine to comply with Help America Vote Act of 2002.

One of HAVA’s requirements is to establish greater accessibility for disabled voters in all polling stations in the county, which the AccuVote-TSX would hypothetically fulfill.


When asked if the state has created any contingency plans for a county due to the delays, the McPherson’s press secretary Jennifer Kerns said:

“We are laser-focused on getting qualified systems for counties to use for the June elections; therefore, I cannot speculate on any contingency plans. We are doing everything in our power to meet those deadlines and that is our top priority. We continue to have conversations with election officials at the local level, and all options are currently on the table for June.”

Despite the secretary’s optimism, under the worse-case scenario for the upcoming June 6 primary election, if the entire Diebold system is decertified, the county’s election department could find itself relying on only three central counting machines at its Eureka office that will have to suffice for collecting all 60,000 ballots estimated to come in that night.

Disabled try out voting machines

Disabled voters in Northern California tried out a variety of accessible voting devices recently, according to this article by John Wildermuth in last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle. Excerpts are featured below.


Jerry Daniels cast fake votes in a phony election Thursday and was delighted to have the chance.

"This is the first time I've used a voting machine in eight or 10 years, and it just feels great," said Daniels, a Santa Rosa man who's legally blind.

Daniels was joined by about two dozen other disabled voters as Sonoma County asked three voting-machine companies to demonstrate how their systems make it possible for people with physical and mental disabilities to cast ballots.


Beginning in June, disabled voters in California will have that access. Under the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, every polling place in the nation must have at least one accessible voting booth by this year.

California counties, which also face new state laws requiring all touch-screen voting machines to provide a way for voters to verify that their ballots have been tallied correctly, are scrambling to find and purchase the new voting machines for the June 6 primary.

"We're going to have to buy machines for 335 precincts," said Janice Atkinson, assistant registrar of voters in Sonoma County. "But before we do, our goal was to get as many people (with disabilities) here as possible."

The county wanted to watch how the machines worked with people with different types of disabilities: the blind, the deaf, the physically disabled and those with other impairments.


"I've voted absentee for years," Daniels said. "They'd send me a ballot, and I'd have someone come over and read the ballot to me. Now I'll be able to do this myself, and (the polling place) is even close enough that I can walk."

The voting machines are designed to assist people with a wide range of disabilities and can be programmed for people who speak a language other than English.


While the new voting machines are an important start, they won't solve all the problems disabled voters face in casting a ballot.

Roy Rauschkolb of Cotati has voted absentee since an automobile accident 4 1/2 years ago left him confined to a wheelchair. Having voting machines that come down to his level and are easy to use are only part of the answer, he said.

"It only takes a lip of one or two inches to make a voting place inaccessible," he said. "People don't realize that a doorway an inch or two narrower or a slight slant of the floor can keep me out.

"These are things I deal with every day."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Yolo County picks Vote-PAD for accessibility

The elections community is buzzing with the news that California's Yolo County has selected Vote-PAD as the assistive device it will use to meet the federal Help America Vote Act accessibility requirement. Today's Woodland Daily Democrat features an article by Monica Krauth about this development. The news was also covered last week in an article for Wired News by Kim Zetter.

One big advantage of the Vote-PAD device is that it is non-technical; there is no software, no electricity, no mechanical devices. This reduces the cost dramatically. It also may mean that the Vote-PAD device does not need to be tested or certified by the state, since it is not a voting system, but rather an assistive device. If Vote-PAD can bypass the certification process, it's possible that many other counties in California and elsewhere will consider this a viable option to electronic voting machines made by the major equipment vendors.

Excerpts from the Woodland Daily Democrat article are featured below.


"It's a whole new way of voting. It's simpler. It's tactile. It's something that we can feel," said Woodland resident Lucinda Talkington, who is a legally blind senior who saw Vote-PAD for the first time Tuesday.

Vote-PAD is based on a plastic sleeve with voting positions marked by tactile bumps. Next to the bumps are small, precision cut holes correspond to the voting position. An ordinary ballot can be slipped into the sleeve and voters with vision problems can listen to a variable speed audio script them through the ballot. Votes are indicated by filling in the appropriate holes.

After voting, voters can confirm that their choices were correctly recorded by using a light sensing shivering pen that stops shivering when it hits the dark spot created by the voter's mark.

Vote-PAD will be used through out the country, however, the only California county that will use it is Yolo County, though it will be used in a mock election in Alameda County. It still needs approval from the Secretary of State Bruce McPherson.

Freddie Oakley, county clerk, said she received inquiries from Los Angeles. "If it works for Yolo, others will follow," she said.

She feels assured that because of her friendship with McPherson, Vote-PAD will pass state inspection.

Though there have not been any accuracy problems in Yolo County, Oakley said, "we have to go to a new system. We are going to an optical scan."

Oakley calls Vote-PAD the perfect solution for counties who don't want to spend a fortune on fancy black box machines and who want to keep the control of elections close to home and open to the public. "Jurisdictions are begging for solutions to this problem," she said.


Former technical writer and voting activist in Washington, Ellen Theisen, is the creator of Vote-PAD with the goal of manufacturing a low-tech solution to meet the needs to voters with disabilities and developed Vote-Pad.

Theisen is also the founder and original Executive Director of VotersUnite!, a national non-partisan nonprofit dedicated to fair and accurate elections. She has seen "so many problems with electronic systems" and how much the systems took the elections out of the hands out of the election officials, she said.

"They run the elections, they should have the power. It should be simple enough that pole workers could deal with it. Elections should remain in the hands of the voting officials." Theisen said.


Before she chose Vote-PAD, Oakley interviewed other vendors of voting systems for purchase and implementation. That committee that helped her decide, she said, was chaired by retired county supervisor Betsy Marchand, staffed by retired county clerk / recorder Tony Bernhard and included a cross-section of Yolo County citizens, including representatives of the blind and disabled communities, representatives from all areas of the county, including poll workers.

According to Oakley, they recommended a computer based system called the "Automark," which was manufactured and sold by Election Systems and Software, Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska. She said that ESS's position as the sole vendor in California places their customers in an awkward position. "How do you negotiate when there is only one candidate for your business?"

She said that the company refused to meet their contractual requirements. "Most disturbing was their refusal to give us the right to control who among their service people would have access to our computers and software. I'm pretty implacable on that demand.

"In an industry where crimes including bribery and kickbacks have been proved, and where one line of computer code could change the outcome of an election, I'm not giving in."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Diebold's interpreted source code

Today's Oakland Tribune features this article by Ian Hoffman which explains the controversy surrounding Diebold's use of what's known as "interpreted code" in its voting systems. Excerpts are below.


For more than two years, Diebold Election Systems Inc. has hit one political or technical snag after another trying to reap more than $40 million in voting-machine sales in California.

Now only a collection of tiny software files on Diebold's latest voting machines stand in the way of those revenues and more. Last summer, a Finnish computer expert using an agricultural device found he could rig the votes stored on Diebold's memory cards and rewrite one of those files to cover his tracks.

The revelation posed a double problem for Diebold: Not only could its optical-scanning voting machines be hacked, but state and federal rules for more than a year have forbidden those files in voting machines.

This week, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, UC-Davis and a private, testing lab in Huntsville, Ala., are studying those files under strict promises of confidentiality. What they find could bear directly on what kind of voting systems almost a third of California counties will use in the 2006 elections and indirectly on Diebold's viability as an e-voting company.


At issue in California is a kind of software called interpreted code — bits of programming akin to Java and HTML that are loaded and translated into computer instructions on, or immediately before, Election Day. Johns Hopkins University computer scientist Avi Rubin said interpreted code can alter a voting system on the fly from its original, tested-and-approved operation.

"If there is some way to slip in interpreted code," said Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist and voter-systems certifier Michael Shamos, "then we have no way to control what the machine is executing."

But with thousands of Diebold voting machines carrying those files already deployed nationwide and a huge share of the market — the firm supplies 17 counties from San Diego to Los Angeles to Alameda to Humboldt — elections officials and computer experts who advise them are looking closely at Diebold's interpreted code and seeing whether it might be used safely after all.

Diebold programmers created their own language, AccuBasic, for the interpreted code used in all of the voting machines supplied for polling places. But they have told election officials in several states that AccuBasic is a very limited language, able only to read vote counts and not modify them, then print out vote reports in the various ways that counties may ask. Tailoring those reports for individual jurisdictions is the main reason for using the interpreted code.

According to several elections officials and voting system experts, Diebold managers persuaded Ciber Inc., a private, software lab in Huntsville, Ala., which tests voting systems for national approval, that the files were inconsequential and not worth a look. Ciber engineers cleared the system, and the National Association of State Elections Directors gave it a national stamp of approval last year under 2002 federal voting system rules that with few exceptions bar the use of interpreted code.

Last summer, Finnish computer expert Harri Hursti took a twin of Diebold's memory cards and preloaded it with votes, a negative number on one side of an issue and an equal, positive number on the other side. Then he retooled Diebold's AccuBasic files so the computer never looked at the preloaded votes before an election. A printout of the vote counters before any ballots were cast would show zero votes although the election already was rigged.

Voting-system experts say the vote fraud fails if the hacker can't gain access to the memory cards or can't change the vote reports without detection. The vulnerability is not as great with Diebold's touchscreen voting machines, which also use interpreted code stored on PC cards. But those programs are encrypted, making it more difficult to alter their contents, Shamos said, and unlike the older optical scanners, the touchscreens automatically clear their memory for storing votes when started up for an election.

He and several other computer experts said that if Diebold's files are as limited in function as the company claims, then a way of checking the authenticity of the files before the election and tighter restrictions on the handling of the memory cards might add enough security for voters to use the system. Elections officials might track the serial numbers of all the memory cards and lock the cards into the voting machines with multiple tamper-proof, numbered seals.

Those answers could clear a technical snag for Diebold, but the firm's critics are suggesting the political bar will be higher.

Activists last week in Sacramento called for disallowing the use of any Diebold voting machine with interpreted code, which is to say virtually all of them. Sen. Debra Bowen, chairwoman of the elections committee and a Democratic contender for secretary of state, said talk of a procedural fix or other workaround gave her "extreme cause for concern."

"The fact that we have a statewide election in less than five months shouldn't be used to cut corners on the certification process, yet that sounds exactly like what this 'work-around' proposal will do," she said Friday.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Thoughts and coverage on yesterday's voting systems Senate hearing

Yesterday I, along with about 100 other folks attended a hearing at the Capitol chaired by State Senator Debra Bowen to examine the status of counties' compliance with state security and federal accessibility laws.

The first part of the hearing consisted primarily of Senator Bowen asking very specific questions of the Secretary of State's key staff people working on voting system certification. One important exchange was over the security of the systems. Senator Bowen asked Bill Wood, Undersecretary of State, what methods, besides testing and certification, the state has to ensure the security of voting systems? Sen. Bowen and Mr. Wood discussed the state's manual audit requirement, and Mr. Wood assured the senator that Secretary of State Bruce McPherson was a supporter of the paper trail and does not oppose using the paper trail as the audit document (Bowen was the author of the bill enacted last year, SB 370, that mandates the paper trail be used to publicly audit software vote counts).

Senator Bowen also asked about the status of the hack test that had been previously reported would take place with Harri Hursti. The Secretary of State is no longer pursuing this test and instead has sent the Diebold code in question back to the Independent Testing Authorities for further review. The Secretary of State's staff also reported that their own team of independent computer scientists, including professors at UC Davis and UC Berkeley and CVF Board member David Jefferson, would be reviewing the Diebold code as well, and recently published a series of documents explaining the certification process and timeline.

The most troubling news coming out of yesterday's hearing was that some county registrars are considering seeking a delay in implementing the state's voter verified paper audit trail law. Elaine Ginnold, acting registrar of voters for Alameda county, said if they fail to get the Legislature to approve an all vote-by-mail election for June, the county would consider seeking "judicial or admininstrative relief" to avoid complying with the paper trail requirement. Ira Rosenthal, registrar for Solano county, echoed this sentiment. Senator Bowen indicated she didn't think this was likely to happen, but as is well known, many registrars are not supportive of the paper trail requirement and it's not surprising that the resistance continues.

Several news organizations covered yesterday's hearing. John Myer's Capital Notes article highlighted the tight timeline issues raised, as did John Wildermuth's story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Jean Pasco's LA Times article focuses on the timeline as well as specific security issues raised during the hearing. Here is an excerpt:


Problems have arisen throughout California and across the country since electronic voting machines came into widespread use in 2004.

Seventeen California counties are relying on machines that proved vulnerable to computer hacking; software glitches in machines used in another 11 counties prompted McPherson's office to send a letter to a manufacturer in December threatening to pull certification if the bugs weren't fixed.

At Wednesday's hearing, officials also revealed errors in ballot counts in Solano and Merced counties during the November special election, and said Orange County's ballots contain a serial number making it possible to tie the ballot to an individual voter — a violation of privacy requirements. McPherson has ordered the machines fixed, officials said.


There were quite a few exchanges between the Secretary of State's folks and Senator Bowen about the degree of transparency in the certification process, which are well-covered in Ian Hoffman's Oakland Tribune article, along with some of the equipment flaws discussed yesterday. Excerpts are featured below.


As virtually every county in California scrambles for new voting machinery to use in the June elections, the last thing that elections officials want to talk about are flaws.

But the warts were on parade Wednesday:

-Sequoia Voting Systems' computers do not reliably add in certain rare primary votes.

-Election Systems & Software's computers sometimes count more ballots than voters and can record the wrong choice for voters with long fingernails.

-Optical scanners made by Diebold Election Systems can be hacked (and so possibly can scanners sold by other vendors).

Unlike in years past, the difference is that lawmakers and state elections officials are airing those problems, if grudgingly and with some protests from local elections officials.

"These meetings are tearing the (voters') confidence apart. They're saying every system is bad," Debbie Hench, San Joaquin County registrar of voters, complained in a legislative hearing.

"I'm sorry you feel scrutiny and transparency is bad," said Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, chairwoman of the Senate Elections and Reapportionment Committee. But, she said, public disclosure of voting problems is essential both for fixing them and regaining the voter trust that has been in decline since the 2000 presidential elections.

"If you just tell people, 'Trust us, we'll make it all go away,' that's not the way you establish confidence," said Bowen, a Democratic contender for secretary of state.

California's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, opened his administration last year with promises of transparency. His office has posted a broad array of reports on voting systems on the Internet, and he has spoken openly about some of the more serious problems.

But Bowen and others were annoyed last month to learn through news reports that McPherson'sstaff had written a leading vendor, Election Systems & Software, threatening to withdraw approval of its equipment after problems cropped up in three counties in the 2004 and 2005 elections.

McPherson's chief counsel, Bill Wood, said the letter was not publicized because state officials first wanted to hear what the firm had to say.

"I don't think it serves the public to put a letter out when we don't have answers so we can go forward," he said.


Bowen said his office still needs to be more open, however, and Wood agreed to release future correspondence with voting-machine makers about problems with their products.

"Turn around and look at all the people behind you," Bowen said, gesturing at a gallery full of voting activists. "These are all people who care about transparency in the elections process. It's not about me knowing or you knowing, it's about anybody else in the state of California who cares about elections to assess for themselves what's going on."

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Registrars, Secretary of State weigh in on June voting options

Several county registrars are hoping to avoid spending millions of dollars on new voting equipment for the June Primary by conducting the election entirely by mail. Sunday's Sacramento Bee featured an article by Kevin Yamamura examining this effort. Yesterday, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson held a news briefing to assure the public that he will not "cut corners" on the state's certification process despite pressure from some registrars to certify more equipment in time for the June primary.

This pre-election season is shaping up into a repeat of California's 2004 Primary election, when counties were also faced with a deadline, which at that time was replacement of prescored punch card voting systems. The situation was eerily similar -- registrars had their backs up against a wall, a deadline was looming, and the Secretary of State at that time, Kevin Shelley, was under enormous pressure to certify systems. Adding to the deadline pressure was the complexity of California's primary ballot, which allows for limited crossover voting. Several counties experienced widespread equipment problems in the 2004 primary that resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of California voters.

Secretary of State Bruce McPherson appears to be doing all he can to avoid a repeat and is insisting that all voting systems be fully tested and certified by federal and state authorities before being purchased by counties. Yesterday's Oakland Tribune featured an article by Ian Hoffman with additional comments by Secretary McPherson. Excerpts from that article, and the Bee story, are below.


With state and federal primaries just months away, California's chief elections officer has ordered the largest U.S. makers of voting machinery to be finished with national testing and ready for state testing by the end of January.

That allows just enough time for state testing and approval of those systems before March 10, when counties must know what voting machinery they will use and begin designing their ballots for the June primaries.

"We will have an election whether these requirements are met or not. California voters will vote on June 6 and on November 7," Secretary of State Bruce McPherson said Monday. But he said he will not loosen state rules for approving voting systems, considered among the nation's toughest.

"We cannot cut corners and lose the trust, the integrity of the vote. If we do that, we've lost everything," he told reporters.

McPherson's demands of voting-machine makers come amid criticism from some local elections officials that his office has been slow to approve new voting systems so they can meet their own deadlines and adequately prepare for the June elections.


But Alameda and as many as a dozen other Northern California counties are hedging their bets by asking the state Legislature for emergency approval to conduct an all-mail election in June, without any poll workers, polling places or precinct voting machines.

McPherson gave a lukewarm endorsement to the idea but echoed Republican lawmakers who are concerned about verifying the identities of mail-in voters.

"I am open to that," McPherson said. "I just don't know that we're ready for it in California yet."


(excerpts from the Sacramento Bee article)

The registrars point to a successful mail-ballot system in Oregon and the fact that most counties in Washington state now do the same.

California is heading in that direction, considering that nearly two in five voters statewide used absentee ballots for the 2005 special election. The state has seen a surge in mail ballots since a permanent absentee voter program took effect four years ago.

And Sacramento County had its watershed moment in March when more voters submitted mail ballots than went to the polls during the special congressional election won by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.

Still, lawmakers have been hesitant to eliminate polling places due to a variety of security and political concerns - and the Assembly last year killed a pilot project proposal.

"Right now, I don't know if it's politically feasible," said Elaine Ginnold, acting registrar of voters in Alameda County. "But if mail-ballot voters increase the way they've been increasing so far and turnout continues be very high, I think there's a good possibility we could ... allow any county to opt whether to vote by mail."

Alameda's immediate motivation is a new federal requirement to place at least one voting machine accessible to voters with disabilities in each polling place for the June election.

Moving to a vote-by-mail format would eliminate the need for polling places and significantly reduce the number of accessible machines the county would have to acquire to meet the federal requirements.

Right now, acquiring certified machines has proved to be difficult for many counties. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has approved only one brand of machine for the June primary.

He has insisted he will certify more machines by April once they pass a battery of state tests. McPherson spokeswoman Jennifer Kerns said the review generally takes 50 to 55 days and that the testing office is working to expedite the process.

But registrars have grown increasingly nervous as each week passes. They are concerned that they could face federal sanctions if they do not have accessible voting machines in June's election.

Under the federal 2002 Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, states and counties are required to modernize election equipment and make polling places accessible to voters with disabilities.

After Alameda raised the specter of a mail ballot solution, registrars last week were abuzz over the possibility.

In Yolo County, Registrar of Voters Freddie Oakley said she's considering the state-approved AutoMARK machine made by Omaha, Neb.-based Elections Systems & Software. But she said negotiations have become more difficult because the company knows it's the only certified option on the market. She wants a vote-by-mail option to give counties more flexibility in June.

"I think that takes California off the hook in terms of rushing to comply with HAVA when there's only one certified voting system out there," Oakley said. "So I would love to see this (vote-by-mail) happen for June."


State law allows counties to use all-mail balloting in sparsely populated precincts, but doing so in more urban areas would require new authorizing legislation.

Ardis Bazyn, a board member for the California Council of the Blind, said she would not object to a mail system as long as counties still made machines available to voters with disabilities.

In particular, she said counties should make sure that accessible machine locations are near public transportation.


Assemblywoman Carol Liu, D-La CaƱada Flintridge, last year wrote Assembly Bill 867 to allow seven counties to conduct vote-by-mail elections through 2010. The majority-vote bill stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

She believes another vote-by-mail proposal would stand no chance of passage. Her plan required even fewer votes than the Alameda plan.

"Unfortunately, the political parties really don't like it because they want more control over who is voting," Liu said.

Assemblyman Michael Villines, R-Clovis, voted against the bill twice in committee. He's concerned that the state would be unable to verify who casts a ballot and that voter rolls are outdated.

"I think it could undermine voter confidence and create a situation where fraud can happen," he said.

Liu added that some Democrats also are concerned that absentee votes tend to favor Republicans - conventional wisdom in years past - but she believes that is no longer the case.

Some also believe political consultants are opposed to mail voting because it makes strategy more difficult. Garry South, political adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis, said the sharp rise in absentee voting already has shifted the dynamics of campaigning.

"It's the future of voting, no doubt about it," South said. "The thinking used to be that the electorate is somnolent for most of a campaign, so if you can go on air the last two weeks, that's all you need to win. That doesn't work as much anymore."


Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation sees a hybrid system in the future that includes mail balloting in addition to high-tech centers in which voters could cast their ballots in different ways.

"I do think that the polling place experience is a vital and vibrant part of democratic life in our state and it needs to be retained in some manner," she said. "I don't think it has to be an either/or situation. You could mail everyone their ballots and have them turn them in at a voting center."

Friday, January 13, 2006

CA Senate hearing on voting systems next Wednesday

Senator Debra Bowen, chair of the Senate Elections Committee announced today that a hearing will take place next Wednesday, January 18 at 10 a.m. at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Room 3191. According to the announcement, the goal of the hearing is to "get a snapshot" of where California counties are in respect to voting equipment upgrades that comply with state security and federal accessibility requirements. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, while scheduled to testify, is not yet confirmed. Several county registrars will speak, covering the variety of vendors and systems used in the state.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Alameda seeks urgent legislation for all-mail balloting in June

Alameda County's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously yesterday to support their registrar's effort to seek emergency legislation that would allow the county to conduct the June primary as an all-mail election, according to this article by Ian Hoffman in today's Oakland Tribune.

The move to all-mail balloting would utilize paper voting systems which meet the state's new voter-verified paper audit trail law and allow the county to dodge a federal mandate to provide accessible voting machines in polling places. It's a drastic move, but one that election officials it at least a dozen other counties are also considering, according to the article. Excerpts are featured below.


Voting-reform advocates in Alameda County largely favored the move, and county supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to seek emergency legislation as a way out of a chaotic market in voting machinery.

By late afternoon, local elections officials in at least 12 counties, all in Northern California and including San Mateo, Marin, Solano and Sonoma, had signaled an interest in perhaps joining Alameda County's legislation for much the same reason.

But the swell of enthusiasm for abandoning polling places and conducting an election by mail could get a chillier reception in Sacramento, where Democrats and Republicans alike have blocked all previous attempts at voting entirely by mail.

Lawmakers contacted Tuesday declined to weigh in on Alameda County's effort, saying they hadn't seen the bill yet. But politicians have been wary of changing the dynamics of the campaigns that got them elected, and as recently as last year, they rejected six counties' effort to try an all-mail election.

"It hasn't happened yet; I can't imagine it'll happen now at the last minute," said one Democratic staffer.


The leading reason Alameda County wants its primary in the mail is the lack of any polling-place voting machinery with either state approval or a trouble-free record at counting votes. The federal Help America Vote Act required every U.S. county to have at least one handicapped-accessible votingmachine in each polling place by Jan. 1.

For many counties, that translates into a computerized, ATM-like touch-screen voting machine that can generate an audio version of a ballot in multiple languages. But California law, also effective Jan. 1, requires all touch-screen voting machines to offer a paper printout for voters to double-check and for elections officials to use in recounts.

Yet three of the top four voting-system makers — Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems and Hart/InterCivic — are struggling to attain federal and state approvals for voting systems meeting those laws.

A fourth vendor, Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software, has a ballot-marking device called the AutoMark that fits the bill and is approved for use in California. But state elections officials recently threatened to withdraw certification of ES&S' latest voting system because of several problems, including inaccurately counting votes in the last election.

Alameda County elections chief Elaine Ginnold has $8.5 million in federal money to spend on a new voting system but, she said, nothing worth taking the gamble on.

"I'm just looking at a lack of options now," she said. An all-mail election "is a practical solution that would give us more time to be deliberate and more time for these systems to be well-tested by the secretary of state and certified."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

SF Chronicle story examines support and opposition for paper trails

Today's San Francisco Chronicle features an article by John Wildermuth highlighting the reasons why one group, the Pacific Research Institute objects to paper audit trails in electronic voing systems. The institute released a list of what it calls the "Top 10 Policy Blunders of 2005"; #9 is "requiring paper trail recounts for e-voting machines".

Sonia Arrison is quoted in today's Chronicle article as saying, ""These same people worried about electronic voting machines are perfectly fine using an ATM machine or being in an airplane that uses computers for everything.'' I have heard such comparisons made in the past, usually by election officials who favor e-voting and equipment vendors.

The thing is, I doubt many people would actually fly in airplanes if compliance with federal security regulations were voluntary, as is the case with voting systems. And I doubt many people would use ATMs if they weren't entitled to a paper trail of the transaction and a monthly account statement.

Besides, e-voting reform advocates are hardly a bunch of Luddites. The activists working on these issues are incredibly technically-savvy, and rely heavily on the Internet and computers to achieve reforms, such as the enactment of voter-verified paper audit trail requirements in more than half the states.

More excerpts from the Chronicle article are featured below.


The Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank, has called the paper trail requirement one of the state's top 10 policy blunders of 2005. The new law "may force California to relive the mistakes of America's punch-card voting past,'' the group said, and will make voting "increasingly difficult and negate the original virtues of e-voting: speed, cost-savings and efficiency.''

"We're moving in the wrong direction,'' said Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies for the institute. "The whole point of e-voting is to move away from paper.''


Arrison and the institute are swimming against the tide. Growing concerns about the vulnerability of the complex electronic voting systems to hacking, electronic glitches and simple errors by local election officials have persuaded an increasing number of states to require paper backups for election results.

In California, support for a paper voting trail was one of the few recent bipartisan efforts in the Legislature. In 2004, SB1438, which required electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail in the coming June primary, passed the Assembly on a 73-t0-0 vote.

"Without a paper trail, you don't have hard copy to show voter intent,'' said Pamela Smith, national coordinator of, a group concerned about electronic-voting problems. "Instead, you have electronic copy, which may or may not reflect voter intent.''

Without a paper printout, election officials are at the mercy of the electronic voting system, with little or no recourse if something goes wrong, Smith said.


Glitches are the least of the potential problems with electronic voting, say some advocates of paper backup systems. Each voting machine company uses its own proprietary software to record and count the electronic votes, then has its own technicians to deal with any problems with the electronic systems.

"We've created a system where the oversight of elections is by private companies, and that's not acceptable in a democracy,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. Without a paper verification system, "you're at the mercy of the vendor to tell you who won and who lost.''

Monday, January 9, 2006

Riverside looks to replace its voting machines while Alameda ponders all-mail balloting

With a state deadline for providing voter-verified paper audit trails of electronic ballots looming, two counties that were early adopters of electronic voting are pondering their choices. Alameda County was seeking to replace its Diebold Accuvote TS machines with a combination of paper and electronic systems, possibly from a new vendor. But last week the county announced it will instead pursue a plan to move to all-mail balloting, as reported in this article by Ian Hoffman of the Oakland Tribune. Moving to all-mail balloting would utilize paper, rather than electronic voting systems and the elimination of polling places would bring with it an elimination of the polling place accessibility requirement mandated under the federal Help America Vote Act.

Riverside County had originally planned to retrofit its Sequoia Edge touchscreen machines with printers, but is now reportedly abandoning that plan, according to this article by Dave Downey of the North County Times. Excerpts from his story are featured below.


Barbara Dunmore, county registrar of voters, said the county will fulfill the law's requirement for the Jan. 17 Riverside city election by borrowing some of San Bernardino County's touch screens. Those are of a later model, which has been certified.

Dunmore said Riverside County likely will borrow San Bernardino machines again for an April election in the wealthy Palm Springs-area city of Rancho Mirage.

However, the borrowing strategy won't work for the June primary, a statewide election that will require thousands of machines in Riverside County at the same time San Bernardino County uses thousands to count its own ballots.

Anticipating that upcoming major election, Riverside had been preparing to retrofit its 4,250 touch screens with paper-trail devices. Now, Dunmore is recommending abandoning that strategy.

With certification still a couple months away for Sequoia Voting Systems' VeriVote devices ---- the ones designed for the type of touch screen Riverside County has ---- and many weeks of lead time required for retrofitting the touch screens, Dunmore said the strategy no longer holds promise.

"There is no way we could get them ready in time for the June election," she said.

As an alternative, the county explored using all paper ballots in June or buying a set of newer-model electronic machines that come with a paper trail. Dunmore is recommending the latter.

She said the county negotiated a tentative deal with Sequoia for the purchase of 3,700 new Edge II touch screens for a net cost to county taxpayers of $4.8 million. That's less than the $6.5 million county supervisors set aside for a retrofit in this year's budget.

The paper-trail devices, located on the left side of the touch screens, would offer voters an opportunity to view paper printouts of their votes behind clear plastic screens before casting their electronic ballots with the press of a finger. Voters could not take printouts home with them, however. Rather, the paper records would be stored and consulted in a recount.

Dunmore said the price on the new machines is $14.2 million, but she said the cost to the county would be $4.8 million because it is eligible for $7.5 million in federal grants and Sequoia is offering to credit the county $1.9 million for trading in its existing touch screens.


Dunmore said the new machines would have a useful life of 20 years.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Interesting news from Connecticut and Wisconsin

There are two important election verification developments to report this week. As was reported by the AP yesterday, Connecticut's Secretary of State, Susan Bysiewicz announced that she has "pulled the plug" on that state's plans to buy electronic voting machines and is planning to stick with mechanical lever machines for now.

According to the AP story, Danaher Controls was the finalist in Connecticut's bid process but had "misled the state and had not yet sought proper certification to meet state and federal requirements. Bysiewicz's office made the discovery during final negotiations with the company." Other voting machine companies also failed to meet the state's needs, and no company could provide a certified electronic machine that displays a voter's entire ballot and provides a voter-verified paper trail as required by state law.

In Wisconsin, the Associated Press reported that Governor Jim Doyle signed legislation to require electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail. As Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign told reporters, "This is important to democracy, because if voters can't trust that their votes are being counted and election officials don't have a paper record that they can go back and review during recounts, then we're lost."

According to Verified Voting, there are now 26 states that have enacted voter-verified paper trail requirements, either through regulation or legislation.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

CA Voting tech updates in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee

Happy new year everyone! The first week of 2006 features a couple of articles that provide a good overview of the situation California is facing with voting technology changes. Noam Levey wrote this article in Today's Los Angeles Times, and yesterday's Sacramento Bee featured this story by Kevin Yamamura. Excerpts are featured below.

(LA Times)

In California, counties have lurched from one voting system to another as the state has written and rewritten standards. Several counties are scrambling to redo their June election plans after the state's top elections official raised new questions last month about an electronic voting machine in use for years.

Miami officials talk of scrapping their 3-year-old electronic machines, while Mercer County, Pa., officials want to keep theirs but were ordered by state authorities to take them out of service after glitches during the 2004 presidential election.

"It pretty much left the county up a tree," said Tom Rookey, elections chief of the Steel Belt county on the Ohio border.

In Connecticut, the secretary of state is tussling with the federal government over how quickly the state must replace its decades-old lever-style voting machines with electronic machines.

Indiana's largest county has sued the company that sold it electronic voting machines. Across the border in Ohio, the same company has sued the state.

"It's been crazy," said San Diego County Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas, who said he is returning to paper ballots because the state refused to recertify more than 10,000 electronic machines the county bought two years ago. "Everyone is in uncharted territory here."


The arcane world of voting technology and ballot counting once drew little attention from anyone other than elections officials.

But 2000 changed everything.

"Everyone looked at what was coming out of Florida — scenes of judges squinting to look at ballots — and agreed there had to be a better way to do this," said Doug Chapin, head of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. "There was a real push toward computerized paperless machines to get away from these chads."

Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act, pledging nearly $4 billion to help states upgrade their voting systems. The same year, California passed its own $200-million bond for the same purpose.

The flood of money fueled a nationwide spending spree on high-tech machines that were expected to revolutionize vote counting.

But the machines often have not proved as reliable as hoped.

And while states and counties rushed to buy them, elections officials struggled to regulate how machines should record votes and safeguard results.

Although the Help America Vote Act set up a federal commission to assist the states, the Election Assistance Commission did not come into existence until 2004, more than a year late. And only in December did it release voluntary voting-machine guidelines.

"In voting technology, the pace of innovation was outpacing the regulation," Chapin said.

The result has sometimes been chaotic.


California's Orange County is retrofitting its voting machines with printers, a task that Neal Kelley, acting registrar of voters, said will require the county to cut open thousands of machines. Voters there will use paper ballots for an April special election to fill a state Senate seat.

Other California counties have pulled electronic systems out of service while the state reevaluates whether the machines are vulnerable to hacking.

That has jeopardized plans by several counties to use the machines in the state's June 6 primary election.

"The frustration level is very, very high," said Elaine Ginnold, acting registrar of voters in Alameda County, whose plans to purchase a new voting system have been thrown into disarray.

Many California counties, including Los Angeles, are in open revolt against the secretary of state's office, which they charge is arbitrarily setting and resetting standards to appease a few outspoken activists.

"This all started with paranoia over technology, even though we trust it in our banking and we trust it to fly airplanes," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack, one of the nation's leading local elections officials. "This is about change management, and people are not managing."

(Sacramento Bee)

Most counties in California - and many across the country - officially fell out of compliance Sunday with rules mandating that election systems be accessible to voters with disabilities. But the San Diego County special election puts Haas at the head of the line when it comes to compliance.

While the legal deadline has passed, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has tried to assure county officials and voters that California will resolve its Help America Vote Act issues by the June primary, the first statewide election with federal races.

But McPherson has not certified any new accessible voting machines since August, making some registrars nervous and others downright angry.


But registrars like Haas are torn. They say they respect McPherson's need to put controversial equipment through a battery of tests. But they also face the practical need of having to run an election in a matter of months.

"It's a squeeze," said Haas, who is preparing for a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned in November after he was convicted of accepting bribes from defense contractors. "Registrars and county clerks are in a squeeze because we're going to be held accountable for an election. We're dying for the tools."

California has certified only one accessible voting machine for the June primary - the AutoMARK made by Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software. At least a dozen California counties are expected to use the system, including Sacramento, said ES&S spokesman Ken Fields.

The Associated Press reported last week that McPherson's office threatened in November to decertify ES&S because of potential flaws, but Kerns said the company has since resolved the state's concerns.

A second accessible machine, made by Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems, has been certified for use in California's general elections but not its primaries due to a problem in reporting crossover selections by independent voters.

Sequoia has created software to correct the problem, but it is awaiting approval from federal officials before it tries to obtain California certification. Spokeswoman Michelle Shafer said she expects the state's 15 counties with Sequoia equipment to be able to use it by the June election.

The remaining counties in California have yet to select their equipment or have chosen another company. At least 17 counties have purchased or plan to use equipment from Diebold Elections Systems of Allen, Texas.


Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, praised McPherson for delaying certification, because she said he has uncovered serious concerns with Diebold.

California is not alone in missing the Help America Vote Act accessibility deadline. Some 21 states will be out of compliance, according to Dan Seligson, editor of, a nonpartisan organization tracking election reform.