A vote for Bowen

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has drawn a lot of flak for her recent decision to decertify the electronic voting systems used in 39 counties just six months before the state’s first-ever February presidential primary. Criticism has come in from county officials who claim they won’t have time to make changes before February, from voting-machine manufacturers who claim the tests that prompted the action were unfair, and from media, including the Sacramento Bee, which went so far as to title a recent editorial, “Bowen’s decision opens way for electoral chaos.”

All of these critics are missing the point, which is that there are significant problems with electronic voting, especially with “touch screen” machines that leave no paper trail of votes cast. The potential for widespread abuse is too real to be ignored. In fact, Bowen was elected largely on the strength of promises to address this issue and what she called “the unprecedented crisis in confidence at both the national and state levels in the fair and independent conduct of elections.”

True to her word, she has reviewed electronic voting in California, found potential security problems, and moved to address them. Far from creating “chaos,” she has acted in good faith to avert a crisis.

It’s not surprising that in 2006 Californians would elect a secretary of state who promised to address the potential perils of electronic voting. With allegations of irregularities in the past two presidential elections vividly in mind, voters supported Bowen, who promised to complete a top-to-bottom review of electronic voting six months before the primary. She followed through with an eight-week review of electronic voting conducted by University of California computer experts, who concluded that equipment manufactured by Diebold, Sequoia, and Hart InterCivic was vulnerable to hackers. Worried that individuals could change results “with little chance of detection and dire consequences,” Bowen moved to decertify the systems and require counties to meet a set of conditions before they could be used.

The requirements are nothing more than a series of common-sense safeguards, including a manual recount of all electronic votes (which requires a paper trail of votes cast), elimination of voting machines’ Internet connections to deny hackers a port of entry, and limiting the use of electronic voting machines to one per polling place to provide voters with an alternative.

It’s true that counties will need to move quickly to implement these measures before February, but considering the alternative—the potential for tainted results in a critical presidential primary—Bowen’s requirements are reasonable and appropriate.

We’re hard-pressed to think of anything that would be worse for the country than to see in California in 2008 a repeat of the kind of irregularities that plagued presidential voting in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. We support Bowen’s efforts to improve the security of electronic voting.