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39 counties’ vote systems in question

Times Staff Writers

County election officials scrambled on Saturday to develop contingency plans for the February presidential primary election after California’s secretary of state imposed broad restrictions on electronic voting machines that she said are susceptible to hacking.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified the voting machines used in 39 counties, including Los Angeles County’s InkaVote system.

She said some of the systems could be recertified in time for the primary if new security upgrades are made.

L.A. County’s system, with which voters use ink devices to mark ballots that are tabulated with a scanner, could be recertified by February. The county did not submit the system for an audit by Bowen’s office, and that appears to be why it was decertified.

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But Bowen’s rules so strictly curtail the use of some machines that some counties on Saturday mulled a return to paper ballots for the February vote.

The decision places California at the center of the national debate on electronic voting machines. And with Bowen’s action, the state now has some of the nation’s strictest regulations governing their use.

Bowen’s decision won praise from some activists who for years have argued that computer voting is vulnerable to hackers who could change the results of elections.

Last week, Bowen’s office released its audit of the electronic voting machines used in California that found some could be manipulated either by breaking into the hardware or by hacking into the software.

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“When NASA discovers a [flaw] or a potential safety concern in the space shuttle, it doesn’t continue launching the missions,” Bowen said at a news conference Saturday. “It scrubs the missions until the problem is fixed.”

But county registrars around the state blasted Bowen, accusing her of political grandstanding that has thrown the election process into turmoil when there is no evidence electronic voting is any more problematic than paper balloting.

In Riverside County, officials said Bowen’s decision is setting them back years. The county was on the cutting edge seven years ago when it became the first in the country to use touch-screen voting in a major election. Since then, electronic machines have been used in 39 elections with hardly any problems, said Barbara Dunmore, the county’s registrar.

But Bowen ruled that the county’s machines can be used only for early voting and on election day by disabled people, because the machines are easy to reach. All other voters will need to use a different system.

The county could have to buy as many as 650 booths and the kind of optical scanners and other equipment used for paper balloting, at a cost of at least $5 million, Dunmore said.

“We were the pioneers,” lamented county Supervisor Bob Buster. “After all our investment, we’re jammed now, whatever we do. Making changes at this point is problematic.”

Dunmore said the county’s 32-foot “vote-mobile,” which took voting machines to rural and poor residents, will probably be rendered useless except for voter registration drives.

Contra Costa County Registrar Stephen Weir predicted a chaotic few months, perhaps with some counties going to court in an attempt to keep electronic voting.

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“Tens of millions of additional ballots: You don’t just go to Kinkos,” Weir said. “The timing is way too tight.”

He also said he thought the changes could delay the counting of votes on primary night; California has a key early primary next spring.

“If people don’t see results, they start going, ‘Something’s wrong,’ ” Weir said.

On Feb. 5, California voters will decide party candidates in the presidential primary election and will consider at least two state ballot measures.

In the June 3 statewide primary, they will select party candidates for legislative and congressional races. Winners of the party races, including presidential candidates, will compete in the Nov. 4, 2008, general election.

The hardest-hit counties were the 39 using machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems or Sequoia Voting Systems. Bowen ruled that those machines could be used only in special circumstances.

Among the counties affected are Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.

San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler said an all-paper requirement would be “pretty onerous,” with 1.38 million registered voters in the county.

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San Bernardino County Registrar Kari Verjil said she was going to huddle with the county counsel to discuss options. She said that if her county goes to paper balloting, it would have to buy voting booths and optical scanners and retrain poll workers.

Dunmore, Riverside County’s registrar, said she is less worried about producing a paper ballot for the February primary than for the November general election.

“With all the nation going to election, I’m concerned about the capacity of certified printers for all the ballots for all of California,” Dunmore said.

In Orange County, officials said they were relieved at the relatively modest regulations Bowen imposed on them. The equipment Orange County uses, made by Hart InterCivic, was decertified but immediately recertified on the condition that it meet certain conditions within 45 days.

“I’ve read through all the documents and talked to Hart all morning. It’s doable,” said Registrar Neal Kelley. “I was concerned. It’s funny, but yesterday felt like election day for me. I was on pins and needles.”

In Los Angeles County, officials were still trying to sort out what the decertification of their system meant.

Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack said she was baffled by Bowen’s decision.

“This decision must have been based on telepathy,” McCormack said. “I can’t make any predictions about what’s going to happen. I’m assuming the Board of Supervisors will look at this right away. They’re the decision-makers. But I can’t predict. All I know is what she’s done, based on no test, not even looking at the equipment.”

L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Saturday that Bowen had reassured him that the county’s system would probably be recertified after a review. “I don’t see any reason to panic today,” he said.

California has been grappling with the issue of electronic voting for several years.

During the March 2004 primary in California, touch-screen voting terminals by Diebold malfunctioned, and state election officials discovered that the machines contained uncertified software. The state barred four counties from using Diebold but later approved their use in 11 counties after those jurisdictions agreed to new security requirements, including making paper ballots available as an alternative.

Bowen’s audit has garnered national attention. In the wake of the findings, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said she intended to hold a hearing in September to review the security of electronic voting machines. Congress has been discussing for several years setting stronger regulations for the machines.

Some on Saturday praised Bowen, saying she’s displayed courage standing up to both voting-machine firms and county registrars.

“She was obviously, like many of us, concerned about the idea that people could rig an election,” said former state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton. “She doesn’t want California to be another Florida.”

Bowen, a former Democratic state senator, last year defeated Bruce MacPherson, the incumbent secretary of state appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a race in which electronic voting became the main issue.

Bowen said Saturday that many county systems should not have been certified in the first place. But she added that she thought the needed changes could be done in time for the primary.

“Everything that we’re talking about is perfectly feasible,” she said.

But critics say Bowen is using bad data to build a case against electronic voting. As part of her audit, researchers infiltrated some machines. But they were provided with encrypted source codes by the companies that government employees would not have.

Thad Hall, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, said that if the paper ballot systems were subjected to the testing, they would fail just as easily.

He said the test commission by Bowen was not based on realistic situations.

“Where was the physical test for the paper-ballot box?” Hall asked. “Open the box, shove some ballots into the box and the election’s stolen. Ballot boxes are not secured unless the workers are there too. I could light a cigarette and drop it into a ballot box.”

Buster, the Riverside County supervisor, said he thought it sent a bad message to allow decertified machines to be used by the disabled and not other voters.

“If they’re not good enough for the general population,” Buster said, “why are they good enough for the disabled?”

hector.becerra@latimes.com

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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Becerra reported from Los Angeles and Rau from Sacramento. Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ballot box status

Here is how local counties stand after Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified many voting systems used in California:

Los Angeles County: The county’s InkaVote system was decertified, but Bowen’s office said it would probably be recertified for use in February if the system is submitted for a test.

Orange County: Officials believe they can make the modest fixes required by Bowen and use their electronic voting machines in February.

Riverside County: The county, a pioneer in computer voting, is considering paper ballots because of the numerous restrictions Bowen imposed on its electronic voting machines.

San Bernardino County: Election officials and the county counsel will discuss legal options in the coming days. Litigation and the use of a paper ballot system are not ruled out.

San Diego County: An election official said that if the county has to go to a paper ballot voting system, it would be “pretty onerous.”

Ventura County: The county might have to use paper ballots or find a different electronic voting system. Election officials could not be reached Saturday.

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Sources: Hector Becerra, The Times; Times reporting


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