County switches to paper ballots.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
In early August, after concluding a $1.8 million “top-to-bottom review,” Secretary of State Debra Bowen withdrew state approval for four major touch-screen voting machines, including the Sequoia systems used in Monterey County. Three of the decertified systems, including Sequoia’s, can be recertified if they are modified to meet a list of conditions for increased security.
Bowen’s decision allows jurisdictions to use one decertified touch-screen machine per polling place in consideration of disabled voters. The County also plans to continue using optical scanners to count the paper ballots, despite one local watchdog group’s repeated requests for manual counting.
While many see it as a long-overdue fix to a broken voting system, the Secretary of State’s order creates a glut of unusable touch-screen machines and related equipment representing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
The federal Help America Vote Act and the state Voting Modernization Bond Act, both passed in 2002, allocated nearly $4 million to Monterey County to purchase voting systems and related equipment. Since 2004, the County has spent about $3.6 million of that on Sequoia touch-screen machines, software, hardware, printers, optical scanners, warranties and services.
The machines included printers for paper ballot trails, but the Nov. 2006 ballot was so long that the printer paper sometimes ran out and poll workers weren’t able to replace it quickly, says Linda Tulett, county registrar of voters. So last spring, the County bought 339 back-up printers for about $370,000.
Most of the Sequoia equipment becomes useless with Bowen’s decision. But Tulett says that a refund is not in the cards. The machines might be improved to meet Bowen’s conditions for re-certification, she says, or someone else might buy them. “I’m not gonna jump ship and dump them,” Tulett says. “That would be a waste of money.”
Bowen’s order will not be in effect until the February election, but Tulett says she hopes to transition Monterey County to paper ballots by November.
According to Supervisor Simón Salinas, who sits on the county’s Voting Rights Committee, the logistics of switching from touch-screen machines to paper ballots are complicated. “It’s certainly more labor-intensive,” he says. “A lot of work has to be done by November.”
Tulett says she’s watching HR 811, a federal bill that would require voter-verified permanent paper ballots and manual audits of federal elections in all states. The bill does, however, allow the use of touch-screen voting machines outfitted with ballot printers. (The state has required paper ballot trails since 2004.)
The bill also maintains that voting software is a “trade secret” and therefore not subject to public disclosure, a nuance that has turned some voting rights groups against the bill.
Members of one such group, SAVElections Monterey County, argued at the Aug. 29 meeting of the county Voting Rights Committee for the elimination of both touch screen machines and the optical scanners used to count paper ballots.
They’d done the same at the committee’s last quarterly meeting, in March, when Secretary Bowen was beginning her review. But committee members and election officials were unresponsive, says SAVElections founder Valerie Lane. To her and other electronic-voting skeptics, Bowen’s decision is vindication after years of unheeded calls to return to paper ballots.
“[Touch-screen machines] are totally defective products,” says attorney Paul Lehto, who advocates for voting system reform and is working with Lane’s group. “They’ve been recalled, and now the election officials are sitting there with egg on their face.”
Despite Bowen’s decision, Lane’s still not comfortable with the limited use of touch-screen machines, or with the optical scanners used to tally paper ballots. “They should be cast in public,” she says. “They should be counted in public. And these machines don’t allow for that kind of transparency. The software can be manipulated anytime.”
SAVElections has collected more than 400 petition signatures demanding manual counting at the precinct level, Lane says.
The most secure way to tally votes, Lehto says, is by forcing hand-counters from both parties to sit together and agree on their numbers. “Everyone has a reason to cheat,” he says. “When humans are set up in clever arrangements, where they can’t trust each other, that is the most accurate process for counting we have.”