Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Voting equipment problems in Sacramento lead to change of plans

Yesterday Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill Lavine called to give me a "heads up" about some problems the county was having with its voting equipment. The ES&S M100 optical scan machines the county uses to count ballots at polling places did not pass the pre-election "logic and accuracy" tests.

The tests are required by state law and routinely conducted to verify that voting equipment is functioning properly. In this case, according to Lavine, many of the county's M100 machines, which have been tested and used for several previous elections without incident, had a variety of problems. With some machines, the ballot could not be loaded at all, or only accepted if loaded in backwards. In some cases, Democratic votes were not being recorded by a scanner. With other machines, it would be Republican votes that were not recorded. And with some machines, there were no problems at all. With the election within two weeks, Lavine decided to forego using the scanners altogether, and count the ballots centrally at the county election office.

Given the situation, this is a good decision. In-precinct optical scanners are not a "mission critical" component of Sacramento county's voting system. The central count scanner and the Automark accessible voting units did pass the logic and accuracy tests and are ready to be used on February 5.

This article by Ed Fletcher in today's Sacramento Bee provides some additional information. Excerpts are below.


Problems with Sacramento County voting machines will stall Feb. 5's election results for hours. Results may not come until well after your morning coffee - the next day, county elections officials said Wednesday.

"It might be slow, but it will be accurate," offered Brad Buyse, a spokesman for the local election office.

He said the county discovered problems with the equipment used to count ballots in neighborhood polling places a couple weeks ago.

Because the machines didn't fail previous "logic and accuracy tests," Buyse said there is no reason to believe previous results are tainted.

State law requires that county voting equipment be tested prior to each election.

"We've never had any problem with them when we used them before – that is why it's kind of baffling," Buyse said.

Local and state officials said no other county has reported the problem. "We have not heard of any similar problems this far," said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state.


In addition to the standard pre-election testing, after the vote 1 percent of ballots are counted by hand to ensure the manual results match the computer count.

"That is another safeguard that we have set," Buyse said. "With the safeguards in place we are confident this has never happened before in Sacramento County."

Winger said the county has taken the appropriate action.

"It is better to be right than fast," Winger said. "That is the right thing to do when the goal is to ensure the accuracy of the vote."

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said the county is "handling it well."

"The process is working the way it's supposed to," said Alexander, whose Sacramento nonprofit follows election technology issues. "All of those ballots can be counted at the county election office."

She said the only potential harm is that voters won't be protected from overvoting.

Buyse said the staff is baffled because they've used Elections Systems & Software machines without incident for the last seven elections.

The ballot printer Consolidated Printing, of Berkeley, also has been used in the past, Buyse said.

Buyse said they're hoping to add a sixth and seventh central tabulating machine to the mix, if they can be obtained and pass accuracy tests.

In the meantime, the county continues to investigate the errors.

"We truly don't know what the problem is - whether it's the ballot printing, the (equipment) vendor, or both," Buyse said. "It's just flabbergasted us."

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