The Fallout From California's Ban on Electronic Voting Machines

The decision by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to replace an estimated 33,000 electronic voting machines in 20 counties before the 2008 presidential primary wasn't that surprising because the machines' security flaws were known, said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., the lead sponsor of the House's first bill to regulate the machines.

"It is not really new," said Holt, speaking of the design flaws that prompted California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, also a Democrat, to issue a series of directives ordering counties to replace most of the touch-screen voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems by the Feb. 5, 2008, primary. Bowen acted after University of California computer security experts issued a detailed report finding the machines could not prevent people from altering vote counts.

"The report is one more strong piece of evidence, but it is not dramatically different from what's been found in New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, and by independent investigators over the last few years," Holt said. "It all adds up to a really compelling case that we have to have new standards for verifiability, accessibility, accountability and reliability. We need federal standards, and that is what H.R. 811 (The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007) will do."

Last week, Bowen decided that certain touch-screen electronic voting systems could not be used in precincts because of security flaws that could corrupt the vote count. The voting machines could only be used in limited ways, she said, such as for voters with disabilities, who prefer the machines. In isolation, the security threats are minimized, Bowen said.

While Bowen's decision has been greeted with dismay by many California county election officials who have transitioned to the new paperless electronic voting systems -- and will now revert to voting with paper -- Holt said California's actions will increase the chance that HR 811 will come before the full House later this year.

Holt's bill would require electronic voting machines to produce a paper trail for every vote cast and encourages states to return to using paper ballots that are counted by computers. Bowen opted for the later of these choices, the optical-scan ballot system, because marked paper ballots show the voter's intent if there is a recount. Adding a printer to the new all-electronic voting systems has been problematic, she said.

"It just adds more weight, more urgency to the need to pass federal standards," Holt said, speaking of Bowen's decision to restrict the touch-screen machines. "We can't go into another federal election with machines that do no allow voters to verify their votes and have people in 20 states saying they do not believe the results."

On Tuesday, Kentucky's attorney general, Gregory Stumbo, asked his state board of elections to re-examine their paperless voting machines, citing California's actions. Earlier this year, Florida's Legislature followed its Republican governor, Charlie Crist, and passed an election reform package that included returning to paper ballots and optical-scan counters by 2008.

The states are ahead of Congress on restricting paperless voting systems, said one Washington lobbyist who asked not to be named. He said Bowen's decision should also prompt the House leadership to reconsider some of the fine print in HR 811 that would allow states to buy the same touch-screen systems that Bowen has banned -- if they were outfitted with printers. That concession, made to disability advocates, should be reconsidered in light of California's decision, he said.

Meanwhile, California election officials in counties with the Diebold and Sequoia touch-screen systems remain frustrated by their secretary of state's decision.

"I don't believe one vote was changed in the 2006 election," said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. "And by telling voters that it's possible, probable, or likely to happen is heart-breaking to the hundreds of registrars and election officials across the state. They are caught in a political football game that is demeaning to them."

"The state has been a yo-yo on this for the last few years," said Ann Barnett, Kern County registrar of voters, whose county has 1,250 touch-screen machines for 150 polling sites. Under the new rules, about 1,100 of those machines cannot be used, she said, saying her county will return to optical-scan ballots.

"We've begun negotiations with Diebold for replacements," Barnett said. "They said that because they've done it before, they will do it again."

Weir said that in 20 California counties, approximately 33,000 machines costing $5,000 each, or $165 million, would be affected by Bowen's ruling.

Rep. Holt said the cost of new voting systems should not prevent states from replacing vulnerable machines. His bill would provide $1 billion to help states make that transition before the 2008 fall election, he said.

"It can be done," Holt said, saying New Mexico recently transitioned to a new voting system. "The federal legislation says November 2008 (as a deadline for verifiable voting systems). That legislation will hopefully go to a vote real soon. By November 2008, every voter would be given a verifiable paper ballot."

But California election officials are worried they won't have enough time to make a smooth transition before the February primary. Replacements have to be found, put out to bid, delivered, tested, and poll workers have to be trained. Additionally, paper ballots have to be designed, printed and delivered.

Alameda County, east of San Francisco, made that transition last year, a county official said. But that transition took a full year, while the 20 affected counties -- including some of Southern California's biggest cities and GOP strongholds -- will have six months.

Meanwhile, early talk of challenging Bowen's rules in court seems to have faltered.

"I know of nobody who is planning a lawsuit," Weir said. "I do know that county counsels have met and addressed this issue, because it is so important. The feeling from registrars is resignation. Here we go again."

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