Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Alameda supervisors vote 3-2 to move forward on new voting equipment

Yesterday the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to grant their acting county registrar, Elaine Ginnold, permission to move forward on contract negotiations with two potential voting equipment vendors. The board members expressed reluctance to move forward and several wanted to consider options other than those presented by the registrar. But after a four-hour public meeting Monday night and more than an hour spent on this item during yesterday's weekly hearing, they went with the registrar's recommendation.

Ms. Ginnold wants the county to purchase two touchscreens per polling place for accessibility needs (despite the fact that federal law only requires there be one machine). When board members asked her if they could purchase a minimal amount of equipment for this year's election and delay making a large purchase at this time, Ms. Ginnold informed them that the Help America Vote Act requires that everything purchased after January 1, 2007, must be accessible. This was not an accurate description of the law, and is the second time I'm aware of that Ms. Ginnold has misled her board of supervisors about their equipment options. (The first instance was at the June 2005 hearing when she erroneously told her board that going with paper ballots and a limited number of touchscreens in each polling place could create an equal protection problem. See my June 29, 2005 blog entry for more details.)

Several supervisors commended the activists who attended the meeting for bringing important issues to light. They also made it clear that their decision yesterday is not final, since the results of the next round of negotiations will have to come back to the board for consideration and possible approval. Audio webcasts of Monday and Tuesday's meetings are available from the county's web site. More coverage of yesterday's hearing is featured in this article by Ian Hoffman in today's Oakland Tribune. Excerpts are featured below.


Four years after buying new Diebold voting machines for $12 million, Alameda County is headed back into the market to negotiate for up to $17.8 million in new voting machinery.

With an impassioned debate spanning two days, county supervisors anguished over sagging public confidence in voting and uncertainty in the technology, then found themselves divided over how to handle elections for coming years.

"This is not the purchasing of a new vehicle fleet," board President Keith Carson said. "This is fundamental to all the rights of every citizen in the county."

"There's too many unknown things," Supervisor Gail Steele said. "This $17 million is a huge amount of money with the uncertainty that we have."

But when the county's elections chief warned that delays could trigger new federal requirements and force the county into filling its polling places with more electronic voting equipment, Alice Lai-Bitker joined supervisors Nate Miley and Scott Haggerty in pressing ahead with the purchase negotiations.

"There's a consequence to waiting," Acting Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold said. "If we're going to change voting systems, we have to change now so we can train voters and workers."

County elections and contracts officials will negotiate with Allen, Texas-based Diebold Election Systems Inc. and Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems, the two voting-machine makers rated highest by a panel of voting advocates, residents and county officials.

The winning company would provide a system that principally handles paper ballots with optical ballot scanners plus two ATM-like touch-screen voting machines in each polling place like those the county uses now, the latter to meet federal mandates for handicapped-accessible voting equipment. The touch screens would print a backup record of the electronic ballot for voters to check and elections workers to use in recounts.

The decision marks a turning point for Alameda County and a noteworthy moment in the national debate over voting technology. Federal voting-reform law passed after the 2000 election debacle in Florida requires all U.S. counties to buy accessible voting equipment, and the machines that most easily accommodate the broadest array of disabled voters are highly computerized.

Yet the migration to fully computerized voting, fueled with billions in federal grant dollars, has collided with concern over vote manipulation and computer breakdowns.


In June, for the first time in four years, the overwhelming majority of ballots cast in Alameda County will be on paper, and while Diebold remains highly rated as a vendor, its local political stock is low.

"I'm not supportive of Diebold, especially given all the problems that they continue to have," Carson said.

Steele, who led the board in buying the Diebold touch screens, now has her doubts and voted against negotiating for the new machines.

"I like voting on a touch screen, and I believe technologically speaking that we can get to a place where it can be made secure," she said.

For now, however, "I am persuaded that these people have not got a good system in place. The technology's not right."

On Monday night and again Tuesday, electronic-voting critics urged the county supervisors to hold off and instead conduct a cost-benefit study of all voting technologies, including hand-counted paper ballots.

"How could you even consider Diebold? Diebold is well-known (to be) partisan," said activist Phoebe Sorgen. "It's a $17.8 million scam. Please say no to the machines that count our ballots in secret."

Ginnold, the elections chief, said that if the county fails to buy its planned "hybrid" system of mostly optical scanners by January, the federal Help America Vote Act would require that any new system be fully accessible to disabled voters. In general, that would mean every machine in every polling place would have to be a touch screen, she said.

What the law actually says is that after January 2007, no federal funds may be used to purchase new voting systems that are not fully accessible to disabled voters.

"That statement took some options off the table that several supervisors wanted to consider," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "This board in Alameda has put more into trying to understand this issue than any other board in the state. They asked good questions, and I'm not convinced they got good answers."

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