More California news

Banning of voting machines stirs pot


Lack of paper trail worries other states

By Bill Ainsworth



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, 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 Diego.


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 problems.


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 systems.


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 election disaster.


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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