PIEDMONT, Calif. — Voters in this affluent East Bay city will be the first Californians to test computerized voting machines in an experiment that election officials statewide expect will shave hours, even days, off the time it now takes to tally results.
What happens in a special Piedmont municipal election March 2 may determine whether a high-tech electronic system will be available for voting elsewhere in Alameda County and around the state.
Piedmont, which has about 7,600 registered voters, was chosen for the test "because there's just one measure on the ballot, and it's a relatively small area, but it's large enough to get a decent sample size of voters," said Alfie Charles, spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Jones. A division of Jones' office regulates voting procedures statewide.
Coincidentally, the measure on the upcoming Piedmont ballot deals with elections. Voters will be asked to decide whether municipal elections should be held in February rather than in March.
Instead of the usual paper-and-puncher system, Piedmont voters will be given a Smartcard, the size of a credit card, encrypted with ballot information. The card will be inserted into a tabletop computer and questions will appear on a pop-up screen. Voters will be able to touch their choices much like bank customers do at some automated teller machines.
Voters will be able to review choices and then cast their final ballot at the push of a button. Votes will be tallied on a memory card in each machine as the day goes along. Once the polls close, about half the data will be transmitted over phone lines, while the other half will be brought to the central election office to compare the two methods. In all, 25 computer stations will be used, four at each of the six precincts and one at Piedmont election headquarters.
Brad Clark, the registrar of voters in Alameda County, has been seeking ways to modernize voting technology. "The punch-card system's been around for 30 years," Clark said. "It's very good, but it's about at the end of its life span."
A benefit of electronic voting is the ease with which different languages can be accommodated. The system allows voters to choose English, Spanish or Chinese. With the current punch-card system, voters are given a paper ballot translation. So the computerized system could save paper as well, Clark said.
Conny McCormack, registrar-recorder for Los Angeles County, said electronic voting could make preelection ballot changes easier. For example, adapting traditional ballots to the new open primary earlier this year cost Los Angeles County about $500,000.
McCormack said it is appropriate that the test is in a small community like Piedmont. "We don't want to be first because we're huge," the Los Angeles County official said. "We're never on the cutting edge."
Computers for Piedmont's test are being leased for the same cost that a paper ballot would require. Each unit would cost about $5,500 to buy. A county as large as Los Angeles would need to purchase 25,000 units to serve 3.8 million registered voters, McCormack estimated.
The secretary of state will review Piedmont's experience and decide whether the system should be certified for possible use by counties statewide. If it is approved, then each county can choose to buy it.
The computer system passed federal laboratory tests for security, accuracy and durability. And counties in about 10 states around the country, including Nevada and Colorado, have used it. Still, some local officials in California have expressed concerns about costs and how voters will react.
Charles, of the secretary of state's office, said he is confident about the security of the system. "The question is will the voters be comfortable with that level of security," he said.
Clark, the Alameda County official, said he was encouraged by electronic voting he observed in other states. Senior citizens, he said, were especially taken with the easy-to-read displays.
Piedmont is testing a system called AccuTouch, manufactured by Albuquerque-based Global Election Systems.
Frank Kaplan, an official at Global Election Systems, said technology promises such innovations as voter identification by the swipe of a fingerprint.
In Piedmont, a hilly residential community surrounded by Oakland, some voters say the move to computerized balloting is inevitable.
"It makes a lot of sense, and if this will eliminate the waiting for the results, especially in close elections, then it's worth it," said resident Kathy Moody.
But not all agree. "It's nice that they can tally the votes faster," said Debra Constantine. "But why do we need this instant gratification? I would rather they put the money into other things, like education."