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."

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