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.
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."
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 Electionline.org, a nonpartisan organization tracking election reform.