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State Is Urged to Ban Vote Machine

Times Staff Writers

Four California counties should be prohibited from using an electronic voting machine sold by Diebold Election Systems for the November election, a state advisory panel said Thursday.

If Secretary of State Kevin Shelley follows the panel’s recommendation, election officials in San Diego, Kern, Solano and San Joaquin counties will be forced to find a potentially costly replacement system for the 15,000 affected machines before the election. The panel also urged the state attorney general to launch an investigation of the manufacturer.

The panel’s decision focused on one model of Diebold’s touch-screen machines and followed reports of problems in some of the 14 California counties that used electronic voting equipment for the March election. The problems included miscounted ballots, delayed polling place openings and wrong ballots being issued to some voters.

The panel faulted Diebold for failing to obtain federal approval of the model used in the four affected counties and for using software in the March election that had not been approved by the secretary of state. It also noted problems with the Diebold equipment that prevented an unspecified number of voters from casting ballots.

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Shelley has until April 30 to decide whether to ban use of the Diebold machine in the November election, as well as different voting machines used in the 10 other counties, including Orange County. The panel will still consider whether to recommend banning all electronic voting throughout the state for that election because of last month’s problems.

Diebold spokesman David Bear said the company’s equipment was accurate and that it would try again to obtain federal and state certification if Shelley banned the equipment.

A report by Shelley’s office faulted the Texas-based manufacturer for using some software in the March election without having it approved by the secretary of state in advance. Bear acknowledged the company made that and other mistakes.

“We made changes to some base software to meet local and state need. We acknowledge we were at fault for not providing proper notification of those changes,” Bear said. “It was a regrettable error and we apologize for that error.”

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The state Voting Systems and Procedures Panel suggested in its report Thursday that Shelley forward its findings about Diebold to the attorney general “for possible civil and criminal action.”

The biggest of Diebold’s election day problems occurred in San Diego County, where about one-third of the county’s polling places could not open on time because a power-switch problem caused batteries in many of the machines to drain before the polls opened.

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Sally McPherson, whose office paid $31 million for more than 10,000 Diebold machines, said she was holding out hope that the company would be able to get the equipment certified in time for the November election. If not, the county could be forced to make a temporary and potentially costly switch to paper ballots that would be fed through optical scanning machines.

“We know we need improvements to the system [used in the March election], and we believe in the touch-screen system,” McPherson said. “We were prepared to make corrections and use them in November.”

Kern County Registrar of Voters Ann Barnett said she was surprised by the panel’s recommendation because her county had had no problems with the Diebold equipment. She said it would cost Kern County about $200,000 to switch to paper ballots in November.

“Of course I don’t think it was warranted, because we had a successful election using the equipment,” Barnett said. “How can I explain to my voters we’re having to use paper when we had a great election in March?”

Reverting to a paper ballot would cost San Joaquin County an additional $800,000 to $1.3 million -- money the small county doesn’t have, said Debby Hench, the county’s registrar of voters. The county hasn’t yet been reimbursed with state and federal funds for the $5.7 million it spent to buy 1,626 Diebold touch-screens for the March election.

The county’s 250,000 registered voters could vote in November with their ballots optically scanned by other Diebold equipment, but the county has only six scanners, which would make counting time-consuming, she said.

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“I don’t know what to do next,” she said while attending Thursday’s hearing in Sacramento. “We had no problems with the system. We ran a clean election.”

San Joaquin was among three counties that used updated Diebold touch-screen equipment that had been only conditionally certified by Shelley’s office. The equipment was examined by the National Assn. of State Elections Directors, which was required to give it a certification number but never did. The state then issued temporary certification of the system’s updated software.

Kim Alexander, president of the voter advocacy group California Voter Foundation, said she was happy with the panel’s recommendation. Alexander and others have urged Shelley to refuse to certify any electronic voting machine that does not produce a paper ballot for election officials to keep as a backup in case of problems.

Shelley “is moving California in the right direction, and we are hopeful he will accept the panel’s recommendation,” Alexander said in a prepared statement.

“Putting 21st century equipment into a 19th century polling place system is a recipe for disaster. The safest thing we can do is put our touch screens away and not use them again until they include a voter-verified paper backup of every digital ballot.”

State Sens. Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) said they are holding off on a bill to decertify all electronic voting systems for the November election until Shelley makes a decision on the systems’ fate. If Shelley doesn’t decertify all of the systems, the pair said, they will urge the Legislature to do so through their urgency bill.

“I’m troubled by the idea that we’ll simply accept bland assurances by vendors and county elections officials who assured us previously that the problems had been addressed,” Johnson said. “I think there has been a confused, mad rush to embrace new electronic voting technologies, and that’s a real concern. There are very credible witnesses [at Shelley’s hearings] expressing concern about the potential for error or outright fraud.”

Among those monitoring Thursday’s hearing was Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack. The county plans to use an ink-marked paper ballot in November but does own some earlier-model Diebold machines it sets up in public buildings for voters who want to cast ballots in the weeks before an election.

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About 42,000 voters used those earlier-model Diebold machines in Los Angeles County for the October 2003 recall election; more are expected to use the machines in November. McCormack said the equipment is preferred by disabled voters and those whose primary language is not English -- two key elements of new systems required under the Help America Vote Act.

If Shelley ends up decertifying all electronic voting equipment, it will have “major repercussions” on early voting in Los Angeles County, McCormack said.

The touch screens “are a hugely popular option,” she said. “Every county voter has the opportunity to use them.”


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