Monday, April 29, 2013

CA Assembly committee passes Internet voting bill with secret amendments

Last Tuesday at the California Assembly Elections committee hearing, AB 19 by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) was heard and passed on a 4-3 vote. If enacted, the bill would create a California online voting pilot program.

Over the weekend, while cleaning out some old papers, I had deja vu moment when I came across a December 4, 2000 news release issued by then-Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley announcing the introduction of AB 55, which among other things, as originally introduced would have established an online voting pilot program under the direction of the Secretary of State. 

That provision was ultimately amended out, and Mr. Shelley would go on to become the Secretary of State of California and one of the nation's first political leaders to support a voter verified paper audit trail and mandatory election recounts. 

Shelley, who today serves on the board of Verified Voting, is one of many politicians who activists and technologists have worked with over the years to help expand understanding of the risks and opportunities technology can bring to the voting process. 

When I saw AB 19, my first thought was, "Here we go again." Every election there is a new crop of politicians, some of whom think Internet voting is like any other governmental process that can be migrated online. It isn't. And it can't. And that's why so many people showed up at the Assembly Elections committee hearing to testify against AB 19.

The committee analysis is very detailed and provides an excellent overview of California's recent efforts to upgrade and modernize our voting systems as well as the historic work of California's 1999 Internet Voting Task Force, upon which I served as a member.

The bill was opposed by a variety of good government and election reform groups, including California Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Verified Voting, computer scientist and California Voter Foundation board member David Jefferson, and many activists from local political clubs and groups. Only one witness spoke in support and only one letter of support was on file with the committee, provided by Everyone Counts which produces and sells online voting systems.

Despite the overwhelming display of opposition, including that of Committee Chairman Paul Fong, the bill made it through the first hearing thanks to support and votes provided by Democrats Henry Perea (Fresno), Rob Bonta (Oakland), Raul Bocanegra (LA Valley), and Isadore Hall (Compton). In expressing his support, Mr. Perea misguidedly stated, "Considering all the technology we have, especially here in California, we should do this."

It appeared that Mr. Bonta and Mr. Perea had worked out some amendments with the author behind the scenes that not even the committee chair had seen. When Chairman Fong stated that the bill had to be voted on in the committee "as is" and amendments could be taken at the next committee hearing, the committee members overrode the chair and pushed the bill through, agreeing to secret amendments that still are not in print. 

It was a highly unusual maneuver and took everyone in the room by surprise. The bill passed on a 4-3 vote, with Chair Paul Fong and Republican Vice Chair Tim Donnelly voting "no" (both lawmakers spoke out strongly against the bill), and Republican Dan Logue also voting against it.

The bill goes next to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which Mr. Bocanegra and Mr. Hall both serve on - it will be interesting to see if they change their votes on AB 19 or if they continue to give the bill their support.

The hardest part about observing the Legislature's elections committees is that every member thinks he or she is an expert on this topic, since all of them have been through elections. This dynamic can make lobbying on election reform very difficult.

It took Mr. Shelley 20 months to amend his online voting pilot program language out of SB 55 back in the 2001-2002 session. While more than a decade has passed, the security issues remain the same - it is simply not feasible to facilitate secure, online voting while protecting a person's right to a secret ballot and the overall integrity of the election process. 

For more on why Internet voting is not feasible, see this excellent essay, "If I can shop and bank online, why can't I vote online?" by Dr. David Jefferson.

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