Today's Contra Costa Times features this article by Chris Metinko describing how several California counties are moving from electronic to paper voting systems for the upcoming June primary.
The California Voter Foundation has been surveying all the counties over the past week and will be updating our county-by-county directory of voting systems as well as our statewide voting technology map soon. Today's story provides a preview of the changes ahead. Excerpts are featured below.
One of the first counties in the state to embrace electronic voting is headed back to paper -- and it's not the only one.
Alameda County residents going to the polls June 6 will be asked for the first time in five years to fill in ovals on paper ballots rather than casting their votes on costly touch-screen machines.
"It's a little bit of back to the future," joked Elaine Ginnold, the county's acting registrar of voters.
The decision to go back to paper stems from changes in state law that toughen requirements for touch-screen machines and render the county's equipment inadequate.
Merced and Plumas counties also will switch back to paper ballots. And earlier this week Los Angeles officials agreed to upgrade their current optical scan system that counts paper ballots instead of spending more than $100 million to buy a touch-screen system.
"The laws for electronic voting are changing at a dizzying pace," said Conny McCormack, registrar-recorder and clerk for Los Angeles County. "We've seen how other counties have gone out and bought systems and in a few years they can't even use them. For us, with the kind of financial commitment we'd need to make, it doesn't make sense at this time."
All of this contrasts with the rush to touch-screen voting after the Florida ballot-counting fiasco in the 2000 presidential election. To be sure, none of the California counties will return to the famous punch-card systems that made "chad" a regular part of the political lexicon.
After that election, many counties bought electronic systems. Since then, however, experts have raised questions about the accuracy of the machines and state officials have imposed new requirements, including mandates for a paper trail to prevent voter fraud. At the same time, more voters are turning to mail-in ballots, which makes the future of electronic voting murkier than ever.
"The rules have changed for e-voting," said Stephen Weir, clerk-recorder for Contra Costa County. "Now they need to have a paper trail and that means major modifications done to these machines. That isn't a simple process. It's very awkward. That said, e-voting technology is continuing to grow. It's not finished."
There are counties in the state that agree. At least 13, including Santa Clara and Napa, plan to use electronic voting as their primary system in June. Some of those counties retrofitted their machines to make them eligible for the June election, while others bought newer, updated versions.
Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore Alameda County's move back to paper. While it is not the first Bay Area county to go back to paper -- Solano County did the same after its machines were decertified in November 2003 -- Alameda County is especially interesting because it was the first in the region to move to electronic voting and the second in the state behind Riverside County.
The county purchased its now-outdated Diebold electronic voting system for $12 million in 2001. However, the equipment had glitches. Diebold eventually agreed in 2004 to pay the state and Alameda County $2.6 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it made false claims when it sold its equipment to the county.
The settlement came after local and state officials found that Diebold had installed uncertified software in the county's touch-screen machines and that its system was vulnerable to computer hackers. County elections officials also found the system's vote-tabulating program gave several thousand absentee votes to the wrong candidate during the October 2003 gubernatorial recall election.
Now the county is hoping to put those problems in the past. It plans to borrow optical scan equipment to count the paper ballots in June and is in negotiations with two vendors for a "hybrid" or blended voting system it hopes to use in November that would also rely heavily on paper.
That system -- which could cost between $8 million and $18 million -- would require most voters to use paper ballots but would supply a small number of touch-screens, mainly for the disabled.
The new system also would provide scanners at polling sites to help count ballots while also reading each ballot to see if it was filled out properly. Under federal law, voters can receive a new ballot if the scanners discover an error has been made.