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."

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