Elections ‘08

Bowen pulls plug on e-voting

Local registrars of voters are spitting bullets.

That’s because millions of dollars’ worth of North State touch-screen voting machines can’t be used in California’s Feb. 5 presidential primary.

In an 11th-hour decision—literally, as it was made just minutes before a midnight deadline last Friday (Aug. 3)—California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified most of the electronic voting machines in the state. Some 9 million voters, including those in Butte County, use those machines.

The action followed a “top-to-bottom” study and report commissioned by Bowen and conducted by University of California team that found numerous vulnerabilities to hacking in voting machines built by Diebold, Hart and Sequoia.

While Bowen’s action has boosted the morale of “stolen elections” conspiracy theorists, counties all around the state are scrambling to figure out what the announcement means and what will be required of them to make their machines “good” again in time for the presidential primary election six months from now.

Butte County Registrar Candace Grubbs says she can’t even develop a plan for remediation until she gets clarification from Bowen’s office. What she’s most upset about is that the public might think that the county’s machines, which she has experience with and confidence in, are faulty.

Using mostly state and federal grant funds, Grubbs was able to purchase in recent years more than 600 machines costing some $3.5 million. Now they can’t be used—with one exception. Bowen is allowing one machine at every polling place for use by disabled voters.

Tehama County acquired its Sequoia machines in 2003 at a cost of $900,000. Three times since the purchase, the county has conducted “parallel monitoring” under the direction of the Secretary of State’s Office to assure the machines’ accuracy. It has found no problems.

Like most registrars, Tehama County Registrar Beverly Ross believes the UC Davis study was seriously flawed. Not only were the technicians given the manuals and secret codes for the machines, they also did their review “in a lab-type setting without having any of the mitigation measures put into effect by election officials throughout the state.”

Those measures, explained Modoc County Registrar Julie Bustamante, include securing the “chain of control,” or who has control of the machines at any given time. Bustamante is the North State representative to the California Association of Clerks & Elected Officials (CACEO). She’s upset that the secretary’s report didn’t reflect the “real world,” that researchers conducting the study were given source codes that even she is not allowed to have.

Bowen is not the first secretary of state to decertify electronic voting machines. Former Secretary Kevin Shelley stopped the use of Diebold machines, required a paper trail for all votes and set standards for future machines. He became embroiled in money laundering and harassment scandals, however, and resigned in early 2005. Governor Schwarzenegger then appointed Bruce McPherson, who recertified the Diebolds just 17 months ago.

Running against McPherson last year, Bowen, then a Democratic state senator, campaigned on a platform of putting an end to the “black boxes” that she said stole votes in Florida and Ohio. At a campaign rally in September, she crowed, “We will not have a voting system that is not secure. … We will have a voting system that is open, where people will be able to look at the software, at the computer code. The source code is not going to be a secret.”

Maybe so, but right now the whole thing is a major mess, and Bowen has yet to clarify what options counties have for remediation. County registars, in the meantime, are wondering whether they will be able to get voting systems up and running in time for the February election and how they will pay for switching back to optical-scan paper ballots.

“This is the biggest thing since I’ve been here,” Glenn County Assistant County Clerk Linda Alves said. She’s worked in the clerk’s office nearly 30 years.