Tuesday, June 20, 2006

SF Chronicle, PBS' NewsHour coverage of California Primary

Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle featured this article by John Wildermuth summarizing the numerous problems with voting equipment during California's June 6 Primary election, as well as reactions from registrars and critics like me. It includes a description of a security problem I witnessed in Stockton, which was also filmed by PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The NewsHour story ran last Thursday and can be viewed online on PBS' web site. Excerpts from the two stories are featured below.

(partial transcript of the NewHour story)

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Kim Alexander is looking for trouble...

KIM ALEXANDER, The California Voter Foundation: Are you the polling inspector?

SPENCER MICHELS: ... at the polling place.

KIM ALEXANDER: Hi, I'm Kim Alexander.

SPENCER MICHELS: As director of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, she spent Primary Election Day trying to find out how well new touch-screen electronic voting machines were working.

KIM ALEXANDER: And what do you think about using the touch-screen voting machines?

VOTER: I think it's wonderful myself.

SPENCER MICHELS: While some voters told her they liked them, Alexander was dismayed by security problems she found.

KIM ALEXANDER: The other polling place I went to had a little sticker there.

POLLING PLACE WORKER: Yes, one of my workers pulled them off. I had it written it down.

KIM ALEXANDER: Oh, how come they pulled it off?

POLLING PLACE WORKER: They didn't know which one they were talking off. It looks like they got the wrong sticker.

KIM ALEXANDER: Oh, which sticker were they supposed to take off?

At this polling place here this morning, they had trouble getting the machines started, and one poll worker told me that they had an anxiety attack and they started tearing all the seals off all of the machines. And three out of the four machines in this polling place do not have those security seals on them right now.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those security seals are designed to prevent tampering by anyone, and that's a concern now that much of the country has switched to electronic voting machines.

The switch was made in response to problems voters had with punch-card voting systems in the disputed and protracted 2000 Florida presidential election. Two years later, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and appropriated $3.8 billion to buy new voting machines and to otherwise improve elections.

KIM ALEXANDER: A lot of states rushed out and bought new electronic-voting machines thinking that that would solve all of their problems. What we found is that those systems are not only more expensive than paper-voting systems, they're also less transparent and they're hardly glitch-free.

(excerpts from San Francisco Chronicle story)

Across the state, troubles linked to the high-tech systems delayed voting, slowed counting and left people questioning the results of tight elections.

"I'm still feeling that electronic voting is not ready for prime time," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan group that deals with issues of voting and technology.

While the election featured the usual glitches and hiccups that accompany any statewide vote, a number of problems stood out:

-- In Kern County, early morning voters were told to come back later when numerous voting machines could not be used because county election officials failed to purge the voter access cards of the codes from the last election.

-- In at least one Stockton precinct, state-required security seals were pulled from the voting machines, which then were not taken out of service, as state rules require.

-- Precinct workers in San Diego were allowed to keep the touch-screen machines in their homes, under minimal security, for as long as three weeks before the June 6 election, leading Democratic activists to call for a hand count of all ballots in a close congressional race.

The continuing complaints and problems with various electronic voting systems probably will force the state and its counties to take a hard look at whether the move toward high-tech voting is worth the trouble.

"The whole point was to make it easier for people to vote and have their votes recorded accurately," said state Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey (Los Angeles County), chair of the Senate elections committee and a candidate for secretary of state. "If polls don't open for three hours, it hurts."

To many county registrars, the problems have less to do with the intricacies of electronic voting than with the problem of training an essentially volunteer crew of workers to deal with new technology.

"It was a people problem, not an electronic problem" in Kern County, said Ann Barnett, the county clerk-registrar.

Representatives of Diebold, the manufacturer of the county's voting machines, never said that voter access cards used in previous elections had to be wiped clean of data before they were used, the registrar said. In training demonstrations, the company used new cards, not ones the county already had.

When poll workers tried to use the old cards in the voting machines, the machines shut down, as they were designed to do. That forced voters to be sent away or given paper ballots in half the county's precincts. It wasn't until 9:30 a.m. that the problems were fixed.

"A lot of people are saying the system failed, but the system didn't fail," Barnett said. "It did work the way it was supposed to."

The human factor was even more apparent in San Joaquin County, where dozens of poll workers didn't show up and many who were working didn't have the training needed to deal with the sometimes-temperamental voting machines.

When trained workers didn't show up, that meant there were printer jams that couldn't be fixed, machines that couldn't be immediately assembled and even a machine at one precinct that was pushed aside with a note reading "Broken. Don't know why," said Deborah Hench, the county registrar.

"We have people over there who don't even know how to turn (the voting machine) on," because they missed the required classes, she said.

In one embarrassing moment, a TV crew from the PBS "NewsHour" watching the voting at the Sibley Community Center in Stockton saw that the state-required security seals had been removed from the memory slots of the voting machines, leading to the possibility of tampering.

In the haste to get the short-staffed polling place up and running, the poll inspector had mistakenly pulled the security seals off, Hench said. Although the state certification rules for the Diebold voting machines require that machines with broken seals be taken out of service and tested, election officials made note of the problem and kept the machines working rather than cause more delays.

"It wasn't a pretty election, not smooth or quiet," but it got done, Hench said.

The increasing complexity of the voting machines is putting more pressure on election workers, who typically receive a couple of hours of training before working a 15-hour day at the polling place.

"We're reaching the limit of reasonable expectations of what poll workers can do," said Alexander. "County registrars have to grab who they can, and they're reluctant to be critical since that could result in even fewer workers."

Opponents of electronic voting point to those poll workers as a possible source of election fraud. In San Diego, for example, the lead worker at each polling place has always taken the election materials -- ballots, registration books, voting machines -- home after completing a training class, to be ready to open that polling place on election day.

But when Republican Brian Bilbray finished only 5,533 votes ahead of Democrat Francine Busby in a congressional race that drew national attention, the county was flooded with complaints that poll workers had plenty of time to tamper with the voting machines before the election.

The insinuations enrage San Diego County Registrar Mikel Haas, who said voting materials have been carried to the polls by volunteers for the past 40 years.

"How do they think the voting materials get there?" he asked. "That the election fairy shows up at 6 a.m. at every polling place?"

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