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E-Vote Devices Win Partial Favor

Times Staff Writer

A state advisory committee recommended Wednesday that 10 California counties be allowed to use their existing electronic voting devices in November even if they don’t produce paper-ballot backups.

But voters in those counties -- including Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside -- should be given the option of voting on paper if they don’t have confidence in electronic balloting, the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel suggested.

The panel also recommended that any other counties that want to offer electronic voting be required to use machines that provide a paper trail so votes can be audited and recounted if necessary.

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The recommendations were forwarded to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who is expected to announce by week’s end whether he’ll accept them.

Several voter advocacy groups have urged Shelley to ban the use of electronic voting systems until technical problems were fixed and machines produced and stored paper ballots for reference in the event of a recount or audit.

Voter registrars who said they would be forced to spend millions of dollars to produce alternatives to their electronic voting machines generally said they were relieved to learn of the panel’s recommendation. The same panel recommended last week that Shelley prohibit four counties -- San Diego, San Joaquin, Kern and Solano -- from using their Diebold touch-screen voting machines in November.

“What this recommendation shows is they looked at the systems and counties as individual entities. They didn’t just broad-brush it,” said Steve Rodermund, registrar of voters in Orange County, which uses more than 10,000 voting machines produced by Hart InterCivic of Texas. “I’m very grateful to the secretary of state that they actually took the time to look at this system by system.”

If Shelley follows the committee’s recommendations, Los Angeles County would be able to use its Diebold machines in early voting stations in libraries and other public places in the days before the November election. On election day, Los Angeles County voters will use an ink-and-paper voting system.

Electronic voting in California came under scrutiny after the March primary election because several counties had problems ranging from inoperable machines to the issuance of incorrect ballots.

In Orange County, polling officials estimated that 2,000 voters were given wrong access code numbers to enter into their voting machines, causing them to vote in races they shouldn’t have and preventing them from voting in the right races.

In San Diego County, an equipment malfunction prevented 55% of polling places from opening on time. Some voters cast their ballots after the polls opened, but others did not return to their polls while the machines were operating.

Shelley is scheduled to decide by Friday whether to allow the 14 counties in question -- the 10 whose systems the panel favors, plus the four it doesn’t because of their Diebold machines -- to use their e-voting systems in the November election, said Doug Stone, a Shelley spokesman.

“The panel took a step in the right direction. I’m glad they took a step to prevent future paperless systems,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a voting systems watchdog group based in Davis. “The safest thing California can do is put our touch screens away until they produce results that can be verified.”

Riverside County Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend said she was disappointed by the insistence on giving voters the option of paper backups, noting that her county switched to all-electronic voting in 2000 without a problem.

“Our voters have been using this equipment for four years,” she said. “There hasn’t been performance problems with [touch-screen] units in polling places, nor has there been a hue and cry from our public.”

Townsend said voters uncomfortable with electronic voting already have the option of voting on paper, as absentees.

Election officials in California and several other states, boosted by federal funds, began buying e-voting machines in reaction to Florida’s problems with its punch-card machines during the 2000 presidential election.

A record 43% of California voters used electronic voting machines in the March election. The problems that surfaced in several counties led some officials to wonder whether the state would have been better off with its old punch-card systems.

Members of the advisory committee said they were concerned that replacing the e-voting systems with paper ballots in November would be costly and hamper poll worker training. Rodermund said he expected an improved training system to help Orange County avoid the problems it had in March.

Still, committee members said it is important that all e-voting systems eventually produce paper receipts. Shelley has demanded that all the systems produce the so-called paper trail by 2006.

The eight-member committee, comprising employees for the secretary of state, said it would recommend that counties be allowed to use paperless machines in November as long as they implemented a series of safeguards including new testing, provided a security plan to the secretary of state, and gave voters the option to vote on paper ballots if they prefer.

“The issue there is voter confidence. If there are voters who do not trust [electronic voting systems], then they won’t have to use it,” panel member David Jefferson said after the committee made its recommendation.

The panel also recommended that Shelley require that the four vendors who have sold e-voting systems to California counties provide his office with their software codes so the secretary can commission studies of the systems’ reliability and possible security gaps.

“I think those safeguards provide a level of comfort for us and the voters that the systems are as secure as can be,” said Marc Carrel, an assistant secretary of state and co-chairman of the advisory committee.

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Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Riverside contributed to this report.


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