San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, August 5, 2007


Touch vote machine ban hurts counties

John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer


Secretary of State Debra Bowen has made it clear she doesn't trust touch-screen voting systems, and Napa and Santa Clara counties are going to pay the price.


In a late-night news conference Friday, Bowen announced a ban on all but the most limited use of the touch screen machines manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems and Diebold Election Systems. She said they were vulnerable to hackers, who could change election results.


Bowen admitted she favors the optical scan system, which use a paper ballot that can be easily tracked and recounted. The optical scan systems "are easier for voters to see and understand," she said in a statement, and can make it easier "to begin rebuilding the voter confidence in the systems we use to conduct elections."


But for Napa, Santa Clara and the 20 or so other California counties that use only the touch-screen machines in their polling places, Bowen's decision is a potential disaster. While the machines can still be used, each polling place will be limited to a single machine and every vote cast on a touch-screen machine must be recounted by hand after the election.


That's not a major problem for the counties that use touch-screen machines simply as a way to meet the federal requirement that disabled voters be able to cast ballots unassisted. But forcing every voter at a polling place to use a single machine could cause voter gridlock on election day.


Santa Clara County, for example, uses more than 4,000 Sequoia touch-screen machines in about 800 polling places. Napa uses more than 300 of the Sequoia machines, with about three for each polling place, said John Tuteur, the county registrar.


"We had 24,000 people who voted in the November 2006 election," he said. "We only had six requests for the paper ballot we're required to supply. Our voters like our machines."


While Napa could run an election with one voting machine per polling place, it wouldn't be easy, Tuteur said. And if the county is required to recount every vote cast on those touch-screen machines by hand, it could take weeks.


Ever since Bowen announced her "top to bottom review" of the state's voting systems, local election officials have complained that the tests were designed from the start to eliminate touch-screen voting machines in California.


The tests, run by computer scientists from the University of California, were "not objective or fair," said Steve Weir, Contra Costa County registrar and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Bowen "was on a mission and accomplished it. She created a feeling of crisis and mistrust, and now it's in her best interest to solve that."


But Bowen said the tests showed just how vulnerable all voting systems are to hackers and others who would fiddle with election results. One reason she put the strict limits on the touch-screen machines is that a test of their software source code showed it was possible for someone to load a malicious virus into a single machine and then spread it to the entire system.


Bowen's decision to allow the use of current voting machines and election software even with the new restriction disappointed many of the voting activists who supported her in November in her successful effort to oust Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. Many of those supporters are convinced that accurate election results can't be guaranteed as long as the machines and software that record and tally the votes are provided by private companies.


Bowen is buckling to pressure from the vendors and election officials, said Alan Dechert, president of the Open Voting Consortium.


"She is not requiring any changes in the software or hardware used," he said. "This is not why we elected her."


While Bowen's new rulings are a first step, Dechert said, "she's got a long way to go."


E-mail John Wildermuth at


This article appeared on page B - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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