Monday, May 8, 2006

Riverside County activists to monitor voting equipment

Yesterday's North County Times features this article by Chris Bagley about Riverside County's voting equipment plans as well as this story about local activists' efforts to monitor their county's activities. Excerpts are featured below.


March was not a good month for the reputation of touch-screen voting machines.

In Chicago and surrounding Cook County, the nation's second-most populous, several of the machines failed in the March 21 primary elections. There were problems combining vote totals from those machines with the totals from a separate system. Losers from both major political parties later claimed that not all the votes had been counted, though elections officials disputed that.

New Mexico has decided to get rid of touch-screen machines altogether. A bill passed earlier this year will eventually require all counties in the state to use a system of paper ballots that would be marked with ink and counted electronically. Advocates insisted that voters had lost confidence in their touch-screen systems, which produced no tangible record of each vote and whose electronic counting process couldn't be double-checked by the average voter with the naked eye.

In Northern California, Alameda County, which adopted the touch screen machines five years ago, decided to put the machines aside and use inkable paper ballots for the June primary. Elections officials there said they couldn't make the machines comply with a state law requiring each voter to have a paper version of his or her vote.

In Riverside County, a pioneer in electronic voting, voters are preparing next month to use a new touch-screen voting system that is designed to allay many of these problems and concerns. Several watchdog groups fret, however, that the improvements won't be enough to save the voting and counting processes from delays and glitches like those that have cropped up in Chicago and several other communities across the nation.

Worse, the groups say, the machines could still fall victim from outright hacking attempts, though no such attempts have been conclusively documented.

"The security issues are so serious that we have doubts that the necessary measures could be put in place to ensure that the systems are bulletproof," said Tom Courbat, a member of the Temecula-area chapter of Democracy For America, which is organizing volunteers from a range of local political parties to monitor voting and vote-counting in the June 6 primary.


"The currency of democracy is much less protected than the money that people are just gambling away," Courbat said. "Does the public own this system or is it outsourced to a private company? That is the question. Who owns the common good?"

Riverside County's new machines are virtually identical to the ones they're replacing, but with a key addition: A small printer attached to the side of each new terminal creates a paper record of each vote.

The county is paying $14.9 million for the 3,700 terminals, minus a $2 million credit it received for returning the first-generation machines to Sequoia. The county is also receiving about $7.5 million in federal funds to help cover the purchase, according to Riverside County Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore.


Elections officials have long performed recounts on one precinct out of every 100, and a state law passed last year requires elections officials to use the printed paper records to double-check the electronic tally. If recounts disagree with the computers, officials can order a general recount.

Susan Marie Weber, who is vice chairwoman of the Libertarian Party of Riverside County, said she doesn't trust elections officials to select precincts on a truly random basis. The process uses computer software programs that Weber considers just as secretive as the tabulation systems inside the computerized voting system.


Riverside is one of 18 counties expecting to use Sequoia touch-screens and printers next month; several other counties expect to use similar systems made by Diebold. About 150 of the new-generation Sequoia machines were used earlier this year for city elections in Rancho Mirage and Riverside, with no major incidents reported. The county has received 1,325 of the new machines, with 2,375 yet to come, according to Dunmore.


The chief problem is that touch-screen systems are more complicated, voting activists on local, state and national levels say. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said she believes the most secure option is a system of ballots that voters mark with ink and feed into electronic scanners, partly thanks to the relative visibility of the counting process. Such systems, like those recently chosen by New Mexico, are already in use in the counties of San Diego and Los Angeles.

"The success of every election depends on how well every election procedure is followed," said Alexander, whose nonprofit group monitors elections statewide. "You're counting on hundreds, if not thousands, of people to do that. There is a lot of new equipment being used (June 6) for the first time, and the primary is a complicated election. It will be a challenging day."

In another sense, complicated elections give touch-screen machines a chance to shine, advocates say. Unlike paper ballots, which typically have to be printed in two, three or more languages, a touch-screen user can select the appropriate language at the terminal. When considering the touch-screen system for 2000, Riverside County officials estimated it would save them some $600,000 in paper costs each election year, though Dunmore recently said that figure has to be adjusted to account for the 40 percent of voters who use absentee ballots.


Many users have praised the touch-screens as easier to use than paper ballots even as others have reported difficulty getting the right candidate to light up on the screen in front of them.

Skeptics such as Courbat and Alexander say the printers are big improvements over the paperless touch-screen machines they're replacing. Members of Courbat's group also say they've noted new security measures Dunmore has taken since taking office: For example, she has pledged to keep the vote-counting computer disconnected from the county's intranet, thus blocking a particularly wide avenue for potential hackers. But that broken connection is also one of several points that Courbat wants volunteers to monitor next month.

Skeptics in Riverside County also acknowledge the convenience and relative speed of counting votes from touch-screen computers. But they also worry that convenience and speed may have eclipsed the larger issues of security and reliability. As Alexander put it, having election results by midnight doesn't count for much if they remain in doubt afterward.

No comments:

Post a Comment