California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley on Friday withdrew his approval of electronic voting machines throughout the state -- a step that could force many voters to return to paper ballots in November.
Shelley’s decision -- which experts called the most significant setback yet in the nation’s shift to computerized voting -- allows 10 of 14 California counties that use electronic voting to reapply for certification if they meet 23 new security conditions.
The remaining four counties -- San Diego, San Joaquin, Solano and Kern -- are banned from using their touch-screen systems in November. Shelley, the state’s top elections official, also called on California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to investigate the company that made the equipment in those counties, Diebold Election Systems, for allegedly lying to state officials.
Across California, registrars of voters said they were surprised by Shelley’s action, which was harsher than steps recommended by an advisory panel earlier this week.
Even those whose counties were granted permission to seek recertification said they didn’t know whether they would be able to meet the new requirements in time for the November election.
“At this point in time, electronic voting doesn’t appear to be an option,” said Scott Konopasek, San Bernardino County’s registrar of voters. “This really came out of the blue today.”
California had been leading the nation’s shift to electronic voting, with more than 40% of the state’s voters casting ballots electronically in the March primary. Electronic voting systems started gaining favor after problems with punch-card ballots in Florida delayed the final tally of votes in the 2000 presidential election for several weeks.
But Shelley, at a news conference in his office, said he was deeply concerned about a host of election day problems that prevented an unknown number of voters from casting ballots in March.
In San Diego County, for example, the Diebold AccuVote-TSx system malfunctioned, causing 55% of the county’s polling places to open late and preventing an unknown number of voters from casting ballots, according to a report by the secretary of state.
In Orange County, thousands of voters were issued the wrong ballots on voting machines made by Hart InterCivic. As a result, some voters cast ballots in races in which they were ineligible and were prevented from voting in races that affected them. Orange County officials later blamed the problem on inadequate training of poll workers.
In the most drastic action announced Friday, Shelley banned Diebold’s AccuVote-TSx from use in the November election, meaning that four counties that own the equipment -- San Diego, San Joaquin, Solano and Kern -- will have to find another way to collect votes in November. Officials in those counties said they would probably use paper ballots on which voters mark their choices with ink.
San Diego County, which spent more than $30 million for its AccuVote-TSx machines, has a contract that requires Diebold to provide an alternative voting system if its system is not certified by the state.
“We accept the determination made by the secretary of state. The county of San Diego will rely on the secretary of state to make the difficult decisions on what equipment we may use,” San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said in a statement.
The 10 counties that use other electronic voting systems also were sent scrambling by Shelley’s decision, and some voting officials said they, like those with the banned machines, may return to paper ballots.
In San Bernardino County, Konopasek said he was not optimistic that he could get the voting system certified in time for the November general election. His county spent $13.8 million last year to buy 4,000 electronic voting machines that were first used during the October recall election.
Shelley called for registrars in the 10 counties to meet 23 new requirements before the November election.
These include offering a paper ballot to any voter who does not want to vote electronically, releasing software code to the secretary of state for evaluation, and providing training and security plans to ensure the equipment operates properly.
Doug Stone, a Shelley spokesman, said the secretary of state was still developing a plan for the counties to follow to get their equipment approved.
Conny McCormack, registrar of voters in Los Angeles County and an advocate of touch-screen voting systems, said she thought Shelley overreacted.
“I think it’s a tremendous blow to voter confidence,” McCormack said. “The voters love the equipment. It’s been proven to be the most accurate. Now, what are they going to think around the country ... when they read the secretary of state in the largest state said there’s a problem with the equipment?”
Since 2000, Los Angeles County has set up voting machines in public places such as libraries, city halls and the Braille Institute for those who want to vote in the days before the election. But the county has delayed buying a system -- McCormack said it could cost $100 million -- until it can determine how other counties fare with theirs.
In Orange County, Registrar Steve Rodermund said he planned to discuss strategy with county attorneys and the Board of Supervisors. The county used its new $26-million voting system for the first time in the March election.
“I’m not sure what we do now. This has taken everybody completely by surprise,” Rodermund said. “We need to make sure that, if we do comply, we in fact will be recertified.”
In his announcement Friday, Shelley reserved his harshest words for Diebold, which he said lied to his staff while obtaining conditional approval for its machines earlier this year.
The company, the state’s leading manufacturer of touch-screen voting machines, had told the state it was nearing federal approval for AccuVote-TSx when it was nowhere close to gaining that approval, Shelley said. The secretary of state said that action amounted to fraud, and he sent a letter Friday asking Lockyer to open a criminal and civil probe of the company.
“They broke the law. Their conduct was absolutely reprehensible. Their conduct should never be tolerated from anyone doing business again with the state of California,” Shelley said.
The company, which last week apologized for using software for its machines in Alameda County that had not been approved by the state, issued a statement contending that it had been “open and forthcoming in its dealings with the office of the secretary of state, as well as with local California elections officials, and disputes the secretary of state’s accusations.”
Mark G. Radke, director of marketing for Diebold, said the company would work with its customer counties to make sure they could conduct elections. He said that despite Shelley’s criticism, the public should have confidence in Diebold’s voting systems.
“We have confidence in our technology and its benefits, and we look forward to helping administer successful elections in California and elsewhere in the country in November,” Radke said.
For some, however, Shelley’s action was not enough. Two state senators vowed Friday to move forward with a bill that would ban all electronic voting in the state in November.
“Until there is a complete ban for November, we’re going to continue to move the bill,” said state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland). “Nothing short of a ban will guarantee the public confidence and the integrity of the system.”
In March, U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) proposed a bill that would require all voting systems in the nation to produce a paper receipt as a safeguard against fraud or computer breakdown.
Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.