Tuesday, March 28, 2006

County voting plans come into focus at Prop. 41 board meeting

Yesterday I attended the California Voting Modernization Board (VMB) meeting at the Secretary of State's office in Sacramento. This board was established through Prop. 41, which voters passed in 2002 to provide counties with money to upgrade their voting equipment.

Many of the early funding awards made by the board were for counties to use all electronic voting equipment in polling places, and the amounts were huge. It was quite a contrast yesterday. Several counties that received funding approval yesterday are not using the full amount of Prop. 41 money they are entitled to, and of the seven on the agenda, all but one is using their funds to pay for paper-based voting systems. For three counties, this includes the Automark, a paper-based assistive voting device marketed by ES&S.

There has been a lot of pressure for counties to go all-electronic -- from vendors, from the large amounts of state and federal funds made available, and most recently, from the looming Help America Vote Act deadline requiring any HAVA funds spent after January 1, 2007 to be used solely for equipment that is accessible to all voters. It could not be used to support voting machinery, such as in-precinct optical scans for paper-based systems that help reduce paper-ballot marking errors like overvotes.

There are administrative concerns as well. The one county on the agenda that has gone all-electronic was Inyo, which purchased 45 Sequoia Edge electronic voting machines and 56 VeriVote paper trail printers. VMB staffer Jana Lean reported that the county only considered DREs for polling places and that it would be too complicated for pollworkers to use different systems.

But there are a number of California counties that have held on to paper voting systems and are retaining them even though have access to funds to buy more equipment. Many of the counties are upgrading to in-precinct optical scan voting systems, and ballots will be scanned at the precinct so that voters have an opportunity to correct mistakes.

None of the counties up on the agenda yesterday are planning to purchase more than one assistive device per polling place. The issue of how many assistive devices are needed at polling places has come up lately, especially in Alameda County, where the acting registrar of voters is pressing to have two electronic voting machines per polling place. Although this would be a reduction over what Alameda has previously had, which is all-electronic, it still strikes many as excessive.

I took a look recently at Sacramento County's experience using ES&S Automarks in about a third of its polling places last November. Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine reported to the California Senate at a February hearing that nearly 1,000 votes were cast on the Automarks across the county. Any voter who wanted to use the Automark could do so, and pollworkers said that many wanted to try it out because it was new. By my estimates, if the Automark had been available in all Sacramento polling places, ballots cast using these devices would have accounted for about 1.6 percent of all the ballots cast at the polls (and this is even in the case where all voters, and not just those with disabilities, are allowed to use it). It's fair to assume that the percentage of assistive-device ballots that will be cast in most counties will amount to no more than one or two percent of all the polling place ballots.

Most county registrars already know this. And, regardless of the percentage of users, providing all voters the ability to cast a secret ballot without assistance is not only a desired goal, but also a federal and state mandate.

But the statistics from Sacramento bear out the fact that one device per polling place ought to be sufficient to meet accessibility needs. It turns out there may be another reason why Alameda and some other Diebold counties may want two electronic voting machines per polling place. The way Diebold's electronic balloting is currently designed and certified requires two TSx machines to function -- one to program the ballot activation card, and another for casting the votes.

The counties going with Diebold who were on the agenda yesterday include El Dorado and Sierra, which is the second-smallest county in the state and is doing all-mail balloting this June. As for El Dorado, it's unclear how many TSx machines or what extra Diebold equipment might be necessary for the accessible units to operate. El Dorado, like Alameda, is planning to lease TSx machines from San Diego County, which purchased 10,000 of them back in 2004 but does not plan to go all-electronic this June.

San Luis Obispo County has taken on the added challenge of using equipment from two different vendors -- Diebold for in-precinct optical scan paper balloting, and ES&S Automarks for accessibility. I asked the county's registrar before the meeting about whether she'd managed to get Diebold to cooperate with ES&S in her county, since I have read reports from other states that Diebold has objected to combining its equipment with other vendors. The answer was no, and the plan is that if San Luis Obispo can't machine-count the Automark paper ballots they will count them by hand.

Overall, there continues to be a fair amount of uncertainty going forward in California as we move toward voting systems that are both secure and accessible. But headway is definitely being made. More details about county plans are included in the staff reports available on the VMB site.

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