More California news
of voting machines stirs pot
of paper trail worries other states
By Bill Ainsworth
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
August 12, 2007
SACRAMENTO – Secretary of State Debra Bowen's recent
decision to ban most touch-screen voting machines in California could usher in
a new era of skepticism about electronic voting across the country, some
election experts say.
California isn't the first state to severely restrict
electronic voting machines, but the extensive tests done by the University of
California provide a higher level of scrutiny of machines used throughout the
nation. The tests showed the machines could be breached by hackers.
“It's easily the most aggressive, public and wide-ranging
example of a buyer telling a vendor, 'We need to have voting equipment that
works,' ” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, which
monitorselection reform measures.
In Kentucky, which uses some of the same machines that were
decertified by Bowen, the attorney general has demanded that officials in his
state require vendors to fix problems identified by California.
In Washington, D.C., analysts said they believe Bowen's
actions will provide a fresh spark for pending legislation that would require
all electronic voting systems to provide a paper trail.
Bowen's decision, called “midnight madness” by some critics
because it came nine minutes before a midnight deadline on Aug. 3, decertified
the Sequoia and Diebold voting machines used by 21 counties, including San
Those counties will be allowed to have one touch-screen
voting machine per polling place for disabled voters. But most voters will use
paper ballots that are recorded by optical scanners.
Such systems are currently used to count absentee ballots.
San Diego County used an optical scan system for nearly two years with no major
Bowen's actions mark the second time that a California
secretary of state has banned certain Diebold machines. In 2004, then-Secretary
of State Kevin Shelley decertified Diebold after a battery problem forced more
than one-third of San Diego County's precincts to open late in the March
primary, causing some people to miss voting.
During that same 2004 primary election, Alameda County also
experienced significant problems with Diebold equipment.
As a result, Alameda and two other counties that used
electronic voting machines switched to paper-based systems.
Some election experts blame the security and reliability
problems on the rush to buy electronic systems.
After the election fiasco of 2000 in Florida, Congress
provided new money and new requirements that spurred counties across the nation
to replace their paper-based systems with electronic voting machines.
In 2002, California provided money for counties to buy new
But in many cases, those machines weren't adequately tested,
said Lawrence Norden, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York
University Law School.
Norden wrote a report documenting dozens of cases across the
nation where electronic voting machines caused significant errors.
“It's not just a question of has anyone hacked into their
machines,” Norden said. “It's a question of reliability.”
Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Diebold, said he believes
electronic voting machines have been tested extensively but that “testing has
gotten more robust in recent years.”
Bowen, a Democrat, made electronic voting a key part of her
2006 election campaign.
When Bowen took office, she commissioned what she called a
top-to-bottom review, in which University of California computer scientists
looked at the internal structure of three major voting systems.
County elections officials and vendors criticized the review
because it ignored security procedures and provided the experts with the
software source code. They said the review was designed to show failure.
In an interview last week, Bowen said her tests followed
standards developed by computer science professionals.
“You have to assume that somebody is going to get in, and
then you figure out what other layers of security there are,” she said.
Some computer systems, she said, are designed so securely
that even if someone does obtain the code, the person can't do much damage.
In this case, Bowen said, the computer scientists found that
Diebold and Sequoia machines are susceptible to a viral attack that could move
from a single machine to the central machine and back.
Bowen said the study found that one system, Hart InterCivic,
was less vulnerable to attack. Consequently, her ruling only sought minor
modifications in Hart machines.
County elections officials complain that there is no reason
to compel such a drastic change when there is no evidence of a security breach.
“This election, if it's a failure, it's on her,” said Steve
Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials
and Contra Costa County's registrar of voters.
But Weir said county elections officials would do everything
they could to make next year's three state elections run smoothly.
Weir estimated that Bowen's decision could cost up to $66
million by forcing counties to buy optical scanning machines and paper ballots
in time for the Feb. 5 presidential primary.
San Diego County is not likely to incur dramatic costs
because its contract with Diebold required the company to provide an
alternative voting system should its product be decertified, Registrar Deborah
Seiler said. But Seiler said she expects some additional costs.
Bowen said she was sympathetic to complaints from local
officials but said she had to decertify the machines to make sure there is no
Further, she said she believes counties will be able to
handle the change because about 75 percent of California voters still use paper
ballots, including the 42 percent who vote absentee.
Bowen said her decision will help improve voting machines
that were purchased in a rush.
“Our democracy is designed to right decisions that were made
hastily,” she said.
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