Wednesday, April 26, 2006

New California Online Voter Guide debuts

The CVF staff has been hard at work for the past few months putting together the new edition of our California Online Voter Guide, which made its debut today. More details about the latest edition of CVF's online guide are available from today's news release. Of course, the best way to learn about it is to visit the guide and take a look for yourself!

We'll be adding new features in the coming weeks, including updated resources about Election House Parties, as well as an updated county-by-county directory of voting systems and statewide voting technology map.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Several counties returning to paper ballots

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.

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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.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Vote counting woes in Long Beach signal what may be ahead in June

Problems with California's voter registration verification process are leading lots of folks to worry about trouble at the polls June 6 when California holds its first statewide election of 2006. A high percentage of new registrants aren't getting verified despite the fact that they qualify as voters. While the Secretary of State, lawmakers and county officials scramble to alter policies that will relieve the problem, the only known fail-safe at this point is that voters who have fallen through the verification crack will still be able to cast provisional ballots at the polls.

A significant number of voters will also request absentee ballots. The increased reliance on voting by mail in California needs greater attention by policymakers, since a larger proportion of all the ballots are being cast through the mail. Are all the ballots getting delivered on a timely basis? Is there adequate coordination between the county and local post offices heading into an election season? Do these ballots have an equal chance of getting verified for accuracy during the post-election manual count of one percent of the precincts?

Problems with absentee voting inevitably spill over into provisional voting, as voters who requested absentee ballots but for whatever reason didn't return them show up at the polls to vote.

Consequently, county election offiials end up having to spend a lot more time inspecting ballots and voter information and ensuring that only legitimate ballots are counted. Unfortunately, many key players in the election process, such as candidates and the media, are anxious for results and put a great deal of pressure on county election offices to get it done fast. In fact, one key selling point for computerized voting systems has been the promise that such systems can deliver fast and accurate results.

There's no doubt that computers can do this, but the vote counting process happens within an election process that itself gets more complicated every year. If there are close contests in California's June 6 primary election, we may find ourselves waiting for weeks before all the votes can be counted. We need to be patient during this process and let the officials take the time that's necessary to get it right. Fast results are good, but accurate results are better.

For a preview of what's to come in June, take a look at this article by Kristopher Hansen published April 18 in the Long Beach Press Telegram. Excerpts are featured below.

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Did everyone who requested an absentee ballot receive it in the mail?
Why were registered voters' names left off the list at their polling places?

Why were so many provisional ballots cast during the April 11 municipal elections?

The questions came fast and furious Monday for City Clerk Larry Herrera during a session with several office seekers and election consultants anxious to know their political futures.

A week after voters went to the polls in a citywide election to pick a new mayor, five council members, city auditor and attorney and a slew of school board members, some of the race's outcomes remain unknown as authorities work to verify more than 6,000 provisional and absentee ballots.

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"I know people are frustrated, but we have to give it a little more time," Herrera said. The city is working this week to verify the validity of 6,202 absentee and provisional ballots received citywide April 11 that remain sealed as workers prepare to examine them for proper signatures, addresses and registration.

One of the biggest questions is why so many provisional ballots were cast. The city collected about 2,200 April 11, compared with the average 500 or so received during a typical municipal election, Herrera said.

Provisional ballots refer to ballots cast by voters who go to the wrong polling place on Election Day, fail to receive an absentee ballot or who recently moved.

Becki Ames, a consultant for front-running mayoral candidate Bob Foster, said she's heard from a dozen or so voters in East Long Beach who complained of not receiving requested absentee ballots and being forced to cast provisionals.

Herrera plans on getting some answers this week as he checks names and signatures on provisional ballots against a database of voters who requested absentee ballots. If there are a large number on both lists, it could signal a serious breakdown in how absentee ballots were delivered.

"We're gonna get to the bottom of it," Herrera said. "We're being as open as we can and letting everyone see what's going on good or bad."

Herrera could not say if the business contracted to print and send the absentee ballots, Orange County-based Martin and Chapman Co., failed to deliver the absentee ballots on time, but said his office is investigating all possibilities.

In March, Martin and Chapman Co. botched Spanish translations on 196,000 sample ballots, which had to be reprinted and redelivered at a cost of roughly $80,000.

"As we're driving down the road to June 6 (runoff elections), we're also looking in the rearview mirror and mopping up whatever mess we had and working to make sure it doesn't happen again," Herrera said.

Monday, April 17, 2006

California voter registration problems in the news

Last Friday Electionline, a nonpartisan organization providing news and analysis about election reform, published this newsletter highlighting problems with California's voter registration system. Excerpts are featured below.

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While much of the recent election hand-wringing has focused on documented and potential problems with voting systems, recent troubles in several states have shifted some of the focus to another major election change – newly implemented statewide voter registration databases.

The voter lists, mandated by the Help America Vote Act with the aim to eliminate voter registration problems related to inaccurate or haphazard rolls, have raised concerns that list problems in some states could potentially disenfranchise large numbers of voters.

Such is the case in California where, since January 1, nearly 25 percent of voter registration forms submitted for verification have been rejected by the statewide database. In Los Angeles County, 43 percent of voter registrations have been rejected.

In a letter to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson (R), Conny McCormack, L.A. County registrar-recorder/county clerk cited several examples of some of the thousands of applications rejected by the “CalVoter” system. They included some forms being rejected because of spaces in last names, such as "De Leon," or a last name that is two words with no hyphen, such as "Weaver Cardona." Some new residents had applications rejected because the DMV records CalVoter uses for verification can be up to six months old.

“The challenge of setting up a statewide voter registration database that complies with HAVA requirements has been well-known to election administrators and activists for years,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “This particular problem that California is experiencing is a result of the terms of an agreement made between the Secretary of State and the Department of Justice that is unique to California and a handful of other states. This form rejection problem itself is a surprise that I don’t think anyone anticipated.”

McCormack has had to hire 25 temporary staff to handle the calls and the mailings to contact rejected voters. To date, about 29 percent of the rejected forms have been cleared by phone calls and 10 to 15 percent through follow-up mailings. McCormack said although many of the contacted voters have responded nearly 1,000 have refused to provide the necessary information because of fears of identity theft.

Even though some of the examples of people being rejected by the CalVoter system are voters who were already registered but were simply changing their party affiliation, address or name, Alexander believes new voters will suffer the greatest impact from the verification problems.

“The problem will impact some, but not all voters,” Alexander said. “Unfortunately, the voters who could be the most severely impacted are new voters who registered for the first time. If first-time voters don’t receive a sample ballot in the mail, they won’t have the information they need about the candidates and the measures on the ballot, and they won’t be informed of their polling place location.”

On March 31, McPherson announced plans to introduce legislation to improve current state law and provide some “common sense flexibility” for county elections officials when dealing with the voter verification process. The proposal would mean that if all other personal information provided by the voter matches a single DMV record, the voter will not need to be personally contacted and will become a registered voter.

The California Senate Elections Committee held hearings on the issue on April 6 and following the hearing, Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, D-East Bay, and Sen. Barbara Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, chair of the committee [who is challenging McPherson for office], called on McPherson to change voter verification regulations insisting that the fix lies within the regulations and not legislatively.

According to a spokesperson for McPherson, the secretary is working with the legislature to find a sponsor for the legislation. The spokesperson indicated that several legislators have expressed an interest in authoring the legislation.

“The story is still developing,” McCormack said. “Is it a state law problem, is it a regulation problem? Everyone agrees it’s a problem and I just hope some legislative council can help and get it out of this political realm. I just want the voter to be on file. How it happens isn’t important to me. What matters is that it happens and happens quickly.”

Friday, April 14, 2006

Voting reform activists lobby Congress for paper trails and publicly verified vote counts

Last week hundreds of voting reform activists descended on Congress to urge support for HR 550, a bill authored by Congressman Rush Holt that requires a voter-verified paper record for every vote cast and public, hand recounts of ballots in at least 2 percent of the precincts in each state selected at random.

Holt's bill has attracted nearly 180 co-sponsors (ten in just the past week, as a result of the Lobby Days effort), and activists are hoping it will move forward soon. The "Lobby Days" activities supporting HR 550 were organized by the I Count Coalition, which includes Common Cause, Verified Voting, VoteTrustUSA and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Despite growing support for Holt's measure, electronic voting critic Bev Harris of Black Box Voting is opposing the measure, calling it a "placebo". As they say, politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this week an e-voting supporter and paper trail opponent, Dan Tokaji, shared his surprise and delight to find himself in agreement with Ms. Harris.

As a longtime supporter of election verification, I am the first to recognize that there is no magic bullet to fix all that ails the voting process. But we have to start somewhere. Requiring a voter-verified paper record and ensuring the public has the opportunity to verify the results is the best place to start. These reforms bring greater transparency and accountability to the voting process by providing a way for the average person to see for themselves that election results are accurate.

Fortunately California and more than half the states have already enacted paper trail laws, and the number of states that require public verification of election results has tripled in the past two years. Federal legislation would get the job done across the entire country. For more details on HR 550 , see this Open Letter from its author, Congressman Holt. A complete wrap-up of the Lobby Days' activities is available from the I Count Coalition. See also Jessica Alaimo's article in The Hill.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

SAT test score scandal shows the value of verification

Lately I've been reading up on a scandal that's erupted in standardized testing. The company that processes SAT tests, Pearson Educational Measurement, had at least a one percent error rate in its October 2005 test results. The company claims that the scanning errors were the result of humidity, which it says caused the test paper to expand and the scanning devices to incorrectly read the answers.

Overall, of the 495,000 students who took the October test, 4,411 were awarded lower scores than they deserved, and 600 got higher scores. As you might expect, the lawsuits are flying, since many students were adversely impacted by the incorrect test scores and did not apply to schools they preferred.

This morning I spoke with Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing who filled me in on the details of the scandal. Many people have said that optical scan voting works the same way as standardized tests. It turns out the parallels don't stop there. Like voting equipment, the standardized test process is managed by private companies, and it is difficult to check their work. Mr. Schaeffer informed me that test takers can obtain a copy of their test and the answers, for a small fee. In fact, according to one article I read about this scandal in People magazine, the scoring errors went unnoticed until two students asked that their tests be hand-graded.

The SAT scandal demonstrates why it is necessary to verify the performance of computer software and hardware when important transactions, like college test scores or votes are at stake. When I first heard the explanation by Pearson, the test counters, that the scoring errors were caused by humidity, I thought to myself, I have heard this before. I have heard this explanation given many times, in many parts of the country, for why electronic voting machines failed, or why in-precinct optical scanners didn't operate properly.

Mr. Schaeffer at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing wants to change the testing process so that all takers would get their results back in the mail and have the opportunity to double-check their own scores. I'm not suggesting we do the same thing with ballots, since ballots are secret and our votes are private. But there may be may be other valuable lessons to learn from the SAT scandal, such as the need for transparency in the test-scoring and vote-counting processes, as well as the need for routine and public verification of test results as well as vote counts.

More details about the SAT scoring scandal can be found in this story from CBS News.

Friday, April 7, 2006

CA voter reg hearing, OH SoS' Diebold stock, and a PA follow-up

Yesterday I listened to and watched Senator Debra Bowen's State Senate hearing on problems with California's voter registration system, which is rejecting a significant number of applications due to new verification rules mandated by federal laws and agreements.

There appears to be scant coverage of the hearing in today's news, but there is this report that Senator Don Perata, who heads up the California Senate, is asking the Secretary of State to change the regulations that currently govern the registration verification process.

This week I heard from Dr. Michael Shamos, Pennsylvania's longtime voting system examiner who I mentioned in last Friday's entry. Dr. Shamos contacted me to clarify my suggestion that he might have won his own bet challenging anyone to hack an electronic voting machine undetected.

The testing and subsequent flaws Dr. Shamos found were with the software used to count the votes, and not the electronic voting machine itself. In my previous entry, I had said that the problems discovered in Pennsylvania were not relevant to California, since we don't use the same kinds of electronic voting machines here. (We use Sequoia's Edge machine, while Pennsylania is looking at the Advantage).

So, not only does Dr. Shamos hacking challenge still stand, but the problems he discovered in Pennsylvania (specifically with Sequoia WinEDS software was running on an XP laptop) could have serious ramifications here in California. I don't know if California's Sequoia counties are using XP laptops to count the votes, but they are using WinEDS software in both their electronic voting and optical scan systems. The situation is similar to that faced by the Diebold counties, which are vulnerable to the risks identified by Harri Hursti and the California Voting Technology Assessment Advisory Board regardless of whether they are using optical scan or touchscreen equipment.

Speaking of Diebold....a friend sent this article over to me and I had to check the date on it a few times to make sure it wasn't an April Fools joke, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on Tuesday that Ohio Secretary of State and candidate for Governor Ken Blackwell disclosed that he owned 178 shares of Diebold stock. Secretary of State Blackwell claims he didn't know he owned it and faults the folks who were managing his portfolio for failing to follow his instructions to avoid conflicts of interest. Excerpts from the article, by Sandy Theis, are featured below.

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Blackwell reports embarrassing buy of Diebold stock
Rivals pounce on controversy over accidental share purchase

Columbus -Secretary of State Ken Blackwell made an embarrassing announcement Monday: He accidentally bought stock in Diebold Inc., a voting machine maker that benefited from decisions made by his office.

In a required filing with the Ohio Ethics Commission, the GOP gubernatorial hopeful said his hefty portfolio included 178 shares of Diebold stock, which sold for a loss.

"While I was unaware of this stock in my portfolio, its mere presence may be viewed as a conflict," Blackwell wrote in a letter that accompanies his annual financial disclosure statement.

As the Blackwell camp attempted to downplay the controversy, rivals from both parties pounced.

Blackwell "has a pretty unique history with this company," said Bob Paduchik, spokesman for Attorney General Jim Petro, who is also seeking the GOP nomination for governor. "This should be investigated."

Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo called the request for an investigation "absurd" and said county boards of election determine which machines to use.

In his duties as secretary of state, however, Blackwell's staff narrowed the list of companies eligible to replace Ohio's antiquated voting equipment with more modern technology. The Green-based Diebold made the cut, and a rival firm accused Blackwell of improperly favoring the Ohio company.

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LoParo maintains that Diebold's machines are safe and reliable and he described Blackwell's Diebold holdings as an honest mistake.

According to Blackwell's letter, he does not approve individual stock selections but has instructed his money managers to avoid all conflicts of interest.

"Those instructions were not followed by the new financial manager" that took over the account last year, he said. This unidentified woman bought 178 shares of Diebold at $53.67 per share in January 2005, then sold 95 of them for a loss of $15.68 per share.

On Saturday, while reviewing his annual ethics filing, Blackwell said he learned that he owned the remaining 83 shares and also sold them for a loss.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Live audio webcast of California State Senate hearing

The Senate Election Committee is about to get started with today's hearing on California's voter registration database problems. A live audio webcast is available from this page at the CA State Senate's web site. Click on "Senate Committee Room 4203" to access the audio feed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Update on CA's voter registration database issues; hearing tomorrow

California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson last Friday issued this news release explaining his plans to introduce legislation that will address the problems that have cropped up with California's voter registration database.

County registrars throughout the state are finding that a high number of new registration applications are being rejected. This is due to a combination of factors. The federal Help America Vote Act includes provisions, which were codified in state law last year (SB 1016/Bowen), requiring a driver's license or last four digits of the Social Security number be used when people register to vote and also requires the applications be verified. In addition, a recent agreement between the Secretary of State and the Department of Justice requires an exact name match between the registration name and DMV name in the verification process (see this Nov. 2, 2005 news release from the Secretary of State for more details).

Tomorrow Senator Debra Bowen, chair of the Senate Elections Committee will hold a hearing at the State Capitol to examine the registration process. It is scheduled to take place in Room 4203 at either 9:30 a.m. or upon adjournment of the Senate. For more details on this issue, see Ryan Huff's article in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News.