Thursday, March 2, 2006

CA certification hearing draws e-voting critics

Yesterday I attended the Secretary of State's public hearing on certification of new voting equipment for California. There were about 80-100 people in attendance, many coming from outside of Sacramento. The crowd included activists, county election officials, vendors and reporters.

Prior to the hearing, a group of activists, many affiliated with the California Election Protection Network, held a rally criticizing Secretary of State Bruce McPherson's decision to certify voting equipment manufactured by Diebold. Once inside the meeting, however, the citizens who spoke up focused their remarks on general distrust of computerized voting systems. Several spoke out in favor of hand-counting paper ballots, and many expressed a lack of confidence in voting systems produced by private companies and utilizing proprietary software.

My comments focused on the draft procedures produced by the vendors, and specifically their descriptions (or lack thereof) of how the one percent manual count be conducted. I also expressed concern that the volume testing on Sequoia's Edge I and II touchscreen voting machines showed numerous problems with the voter activation cards, or "smart cards" used to call up the electronic ballots. During the meeting Bruce McDannold of the Secretary of State's staff explained these problems were due to the fact that the smart cards were preprogrammed before the volume test began. During my testimony I said that additional volume tests should be conducted to ensure the voter activation cards are working properly. I also expressed concern about the number of printer problems found in the Hart eSlate electronic voting machine found during volume testing, and said that it should not be certified until those problems are worked out.

For more news on the meeting, see Marianne Russ' story on Capitol Public Radio. Kevin Yamamura's Sacramento Bee article described the protest rally held by activists prior to the meeting as well as views expressed by registrars and disability rights activists. Ian Hoffman's Oakland Tribune article describes the problems discovered during testing and the pressure counties are under to plan for the upcoming June Primary. Excerpts from that story and the Sacramento Bee article are featured below.

(excerpts from Sacramento Bee article)

Dan Ashby's button asked, "Who did your voting machine vote for?" Michelle Gabriel held a sign accusing Secretary of State Bruce McPherson of flip-flopping on voting security procedures.
Other activists promoted the slogan, "Live Free or Diebold."

Electronic voting critics rallied Wednesday at McPherson's downtown headquarters to denounce his decision last month to certify Diebold machines for 2006 and testify against three other computer-based systems under review.

They charged that electronic voting machines are prone to hackers and testified they would prefer paper ballots.


Ashby, a San Pablo volunteer organizer with the California Election Protection Network, said he has no confidence in security procedures because he believes the Diebold machines have "too many attack pathways that can be overcome."

He said activists may pursue a lawsuit to stop them from being used.

McPherson's approval of Diebold came as he faced pressure to meet a 2006 federal Help America Vote Act requirements for upgrades in voting technology and accessibility. Many of the state's registrars said McPherson had delayed certification for too long, while the secretary of state said he wanted to conduct a thorough review process.


Warren Cushman, a Sacramento member of California Council for the Blind, said he considers new technology a positive step if it makes voting more accessible.

He took issue with activists who suggest that voting machine companies have curried favor with accessibility rights groups though donations, as one claimed during Wednesday's hearing.

"Our issue is voter accessibility, and when we're accused of being dupes, we have to disagree with that," Cushman said. "There has to be a respect issue because some folks are so wrapped up in their security issues that they forget about the right to vote for people with disabilities."

(excerpts from Oakland Tribune article)

As state officials race to evaluate voting machines for the June elections, critics complained Wednesday that the state was short-circuiting its own rules and putting substandard tools in the hands of voters.

The latest crop of machines are more accessible for disabled voters than ever before but still show significant errors in "volume testing" that simulates an election.

Testing 50 to 100 machines at a time has revealed problems — some minor, some major — with virtually every kind of voting system that vendors want to sell in the state, from common ballot jams and touchscreen errors to system crashes and the rare lost ballot.

In all but one case, in which 59 total errors arose on 100 Hart optical scanners, state elections staff is recommending Secretary of State Bruce McPherson approve the machines for voters, with detailed instructions for recalibrating and rebooting if problems occur on Election Day.


Congress made disabled access part of voting reforms passed under the Help America Vote Act following the 2000 presidential election. State legislatures in California and a dozen other states set the bar higher still by requiring printers on the ATM-like voting machines so voters could verify their choices and elections officials could have a paper record to recount.


Some county elections officials say the June primaries, now 96 days away, are too close to contemplate buying and training on a new voting system.

Alameda County, for example, is considering handing out paper ballots in the polling places while offering touchscreens possibly borrowed from San Diego County to voters with disabilities. San Mateo County is moving ahead with a 12-county proposal for a one-time, all-mail election in June. Failing necessary approval by the state Legislature, the county may accommodate voters with disabilities by setting up two dozen or so regional voting centers with Hart touchscreens, the remainder of voters to use optically scanned paper ballots.

"This is a tough time," said Contra Costa County Registrar of Voters Steve Weir. "We're way too close to this election."
Earlier in the day, federal civil-rights lawyers sued the state of New York for failing to acquire disabled-accessible voting machines and create a statewide voter-registration database, another requirement of the Help America Vote Act. Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that they "repeatedly urged" New York to work on the matter and that as of Jan. 1, the state was "not close to compliance with either provision."

California elections officials want to avoid the same fate. But the state is running into objections from voting-reform activists who say the rush risks sacrificing reliable, secure voting systems.

"There are many errors. It's just too many. You shouldn't certify it," Berkeley computer programmer Jerry Berkman told the state panel.

Critics said the machines' shortcomings will force elderly pollworkers to become computer experts and swap out printer rolls on the fly on Election Day.

"When you have machines that have to be recalibrated, rebooted with pollworkers who are 70, it's just clear these machines are not reliable," said Mary Beth Brangan of Bolinas. "I just think the answer to a lot of these problems is to get simpler, not more complex."

Disability advocates say accessibility has to be as important in new voting systems as reliability and security. "There is a solution," said Warren Cushman, a blind voter in Sacramento. "We just need to find a solution that works for everybody."

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