News & Politics

Today Is D-Day for Electronic Voting Machines

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen will decide today whether to ban new electronic voting machines for next February's presidential primary. No matter what she decides, it will make waves from Capitol Hill to county election offices.
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. -- Friday, August 3, is a day that will likely live in political infamy for election integrity activists across the country.

California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a newly elected, reform-minded Democrat, will decide whether or not the largest state will use electronic voting machines in its new, early presidential primary next February. No matter what Bowen decides, she will make waves from Capitol Hill to county election offices.

If Bowen bans some or all of the machines, she will face an open revolt from many of the county officials who oversee California elections. She also will be sending a big message to Congress, where efforts to regulate electronic voting machines have stalled. The strongest proposals there -- requiring a paper trail to verify votes and tough new audits -- echo existing California law, which Bowen would be saying no longer is sufficient.

"Shame on you," said John Tuteur, Napa County elections director, at a hearing in Sacramento this week on the results of a Bowen-ordered study that found major security flaws in the machines. "The top-to-bottom review has no relevance to real-world conduct of elections. Secretary Bowen, you should know better than to erode the public's confidence in California's fair and accurate elections process for crass political purposes."

"You will not find a group more dedicated to doing their job to ensure voter confidence in the election process than California elected officials and their staff members, with the support of their vendors," said Beverly Ross, Tehama County clerk and recorder, expressing the sentiments of many at the Sacramento hearing.

On the other hand, if Bowen doesn't ban some or of all of the machines, she will frustrate some of her strongest supporters, election protection activists and others, such as computer security experts, who have applauded her efforts to assess vulnerabilities in California's electronic voting systems.

"This review benefits not just California voters, but voters nationwide," said Kim Alexander, California Voter Foundation president, at the hearing. "It is occurring at a time when other states, such as Florida, Ohio and New Jersey, are undertaking similar exercises to look at their state voting systems."

"These machines are not good enough for our democracy," said Gail Work, chair of the Election Integrity Committee of the San Mateo County Democratic Party. "We've seen partisan-appointed registrars with their photos in vendor marketing materials. We've seen in San Diego election results that are certified prior to the votes being counted ... We've seen sleepovers where electronic voting machines are sent home with poll workers."

Bowen's "top-to-bottom" review of California's electronic voting machines began in May before the Legislature moved the 2008 Presidential Primary from June to February. The secretary of state must certify voting machines for use no later than 180 days before an election. The Legislature's action meant Bowen's University of California study had to be narrowed and accelerated, which prompted the voting machine makers -- Diebold, Sequoia and Hart -- and many county election directors to criticize the effort as incomplete and irrelevant to the "policies and procedures" they use to ensure accurate vote counts.

"None of the attacks described ... are capable of success," said Sequoia's Steven Bennett. "All would be prevented or detected."

While a handful of election integrity activists cited problems they witnessed during efforts to monitor the voting machines, none of Bowen's defenders cited another source of real-world examples concerning the technology: court cases that have emerged following the 2004 and 2006 elections.

On Aug. 1, the Brennan Center at New York University Law School released a report with more than 60 examples of electronic voting machine failures in 26 states in 2004 and 2006. The California examples included Spanish-language ballots that were cast by voters but not counted in Sacramento in 2004, and votes for presidential and U.S. Senate candidates that were assigned to another candidate in San Diego in 2004.

Perhaps the most striking recent example was not cited in the Brennan Center report. In a 2006 judicial race in Columbus, Ohio, the defeated incumbent, Carol Squire, challenged the results in court. Magistrate Joel Sacco issued a ruling this July finding that 721 out of Franklin County's 835 precincts had vote totals that did not match the number of people who signed in to vote. In all, 86 percent of the precincts had inaccurate counts. Expert witnesses also cited the breakdown of the paper trail audit systems, which prevented an accurate recount.

"Evidence has come forward in a variety of courtrooms that shows this technology is deeply flawed and there already have been a series of problems," said John Bonifaz, legal director for VoterAction, a public interest law firm involved in voting machine litigation in a half-dozen states. "For them to deny that this doesn't happen in the real world is contrary to the facts in the real world."

These examples, to say nothing of the pressure from California election officials and election integrity activists, means no matter what California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decides on Friday, the fate of the Golden State's electronic voting machines will be very controversial.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).
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