Vote of no confidence

New voting machines have to be in place by January. California isn’t ready.

Yolo County Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley worries that new voting technology gives too much control over our elections to private corporations.

Yolo County Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley worries that new voting technology gives too much control over our elections to private corporations.

Photo By Larry Dalton

With 15.8 million voters statewide, next June’s elections will be a sweeping litmus test for new electronic voting machines used to handle the core function of our democracy.

As an inducement to states to move forward and help avoid a repeat of Florida 2000, the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) provides $3.9 billion to states—including $350 million to California—to upgrade machines. The catch is that the money can’t be used on old technology like punch-card machines.

Instead, states will have to upgrade to optical-scan machines or direct electronic recording machines to receive the funds. Both types of machines are part of the newfangled voting revolution, technology that promises easier access than the long-used paper-ballot system.

But as the June elections draw near, the list of headaches—including cost, reliability and security—is growing.

For better or for worse, HAVA means that more Californians will use electronic voting machines at the polls, beginning with the June 2006 elections. For Yolo County Clerk- Recorder Freddie Oakley, the problems with these machines may outweigh the benefits of replacing the old system.

Yolo County uses DataVote, an older system that predated the horrors of hanging and pregnant chads. Like a Dodge Dart, DataVote was entirely reliable if unspectacular. Oakley isn’t convinced the transition to the new machines is the right move, especially with the increased sway vendors selling these increasingly complex machines have over civil servants tasked with operating them.

“The vendors started having more and more control over the entire voting process,” Oakley told SN&R. “The counties don’t understand the software being used. They don’t have any people who can work the equipment without the vendors. We have this voting system that’s 100-percent dependent on them.”

But with cash-strapped budgets from the federal level to the city level, counties like Yolo also face the prospect of forgoing HAVA funding (about $2 million) and using the old systems.

“God knows how much longer our printer is going to keep printing these,” she said of the DataVote system. “We may be at the tail end of this system for practical purposes.”

State Senator Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, authored Senate Bill 370, which would require what is called a “verifiable voter paper trail” for all machines used in California. The bill was signed into law October 7 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson opposed the measure, saying it would cause delays in processing votes.

But the voter-verifiable paper trail solves one problem that Bowen and other critics of electronic voting were concerned about: maintaining a physical tally of votes as a backup to the machine count. Voters will be able to view a paper version of the vote they register on the machines before turning it in to be stored separately for recount purposes.

But it’s by no means the end of the potential problems with the new technology, Bowen said.

“In San Diego [in November 2004], the polling-place captains actually were given voting machines with the memory cards programmed for the election,” said Bowen, referring to the “smart cards” that are preprogrammed with access codes and collect votes for final tabulation. “Or given the voting machines to store on their garage or front porch or whatever. So, now you have a system where anybody can come along and swap out one of those memory cards. The potential for tampering is there. It’s very unlikely that anyone tampered, but now you’ve raised questions about the vote. On electronic voting equipment in 2004, there were more than 900 documented incidents of problems nationwide with electronic voting machines.”

Quality control with the machines has been a problem in several documented cases, which was a key driver of Bowen’s bill. Take North Carolina’s Carteret County, where electronic machines used there in the November 2004 election lost 4,500 votes after reaching capacity—yet voters continued to cast ballots, and poll workers didn’t notice. Or in Ohio, where Christopher Hitchens, writing in the March 2005 issue of Vanity Fair, noted a prevalent trend of “vote hopping”—that is, the machine recording a vote for the wrong candidate.

S.B. 370 may help verify the accuracy of the new machines. But local elections officials have little time left in which to make a lot of tough decisions.

L.A. County Registrar Conny McCormack, whose turf includes 3.8 million voters, said that the state funds haven’t been released to counties yet and that the changeover for counties is a challenge with an uncertain outcome.

“It’s certainly been on our radar as a huge mandate, for over a year,” said McCormack, who is also president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. “It’s a huge change-management issue for poll workers, staff, everybody. The U.S. Justice Department recently put out a letter indicating the requirement is [by] January 2006, which is less than 80 days away. Obviously, we can’t acquire voting equipment unless it’s certified. Clearly, there’s a huge timeline crunch.”

“There are millions of dollars on the table in California. The folks who helped make this money helped write the bill,” Oakley said. “There’s a really untenable timeline [for deployment] between now and June.”

The holy grail for electronic machines will be transmitting election results from all polling stations that use them, as the technology becomes uniform throughout the state. Currently, state precincts using electronic machines don’t use the secure modems, which McCormack sees as counterintuitive, considering how much money is spent procuring them.

“They haven’t used modems to [transmit] the results,” she said. “I certainly think people should use the modems. What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new equipment?”

Oakley said that transmitting election results via the Internet is inherently problematic, despite the conveniences it offers. While supporters of the concept highlight the savings in time and money in transmitting results—especially with a verifiable paper trail—state elections officials require 1 percent of all precincts to be audited with a hand count compared with the machine tally. That could be an open door to hackers, Oakley said.

“That’s a big problem. A lot of these systems were designed to transmit the system via the Internet overnight. You have to stop and think wait, wait, wait. I don’t care how encrypted they are. It’s just not a real dependable system,” she said. “That’s the problem with public servants. People are not terribly sophisticated about information technology. They have a hard time admitting what they don’t know. People make decisions without understanding technology or knowing how people use it.”

And one only has to note the recent data thefts that have occurred at lending institutions—or at seemingly secure firms like ChoicePoint, an industry-leading background-check firm—to know that there are no promises when sensitive information exists online.

“I’d ask your readers to think about their own experiences with software and computers,” Bowen said. “Think about spyware, adware, bugs and glitches. Now why would you think voting machines and voting software would be perfect, while machines that the whole economic world relies on are so vulnerable?”