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DECISION 2000

Riverside County Voters Go Electronic

Technology: Even those unfamiliar with computers find few problems making their choices by touching a screen. Many had raised concerns about fairness and security.

November 08, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MORENO VALLEY — Walt Shaidnagle, at age 94, had never used a computer before Tuesday morning.

Until he voted.

Shaidnagle wouldn't reveal whom he voted for--indeed, he scolded a reporter for even asking. But like many others in his small retirement community in Riverside, he was happy to discuss how he voted: electronically.

Riverside County's electronic election, the state's first conducted without paper ballots, went off with few hitches Tuesday, even though it was dogged by anxiety that the new system could lead to fraud and could disenfranchise minorities and seniors.

A visit to the Olive Grove Retirement Resort on Tuesday morning reflected the debate. After casting their ballots, retirees repaired to the clubhouse, where they kibitzed about the system over coffee, many still sporting their "I Voted Electronically" stickers on their lapels.

Shaidnagle said he had grown accustomed to the paper ballot over the years, and had trouble with the new system, which requires voters to cast their ballot by touching a screen, similar to a bank's automated teller machine. Shaidnagle said he struggled to get the screen to respond to his touch, and he worried that seniors might be put off by changes in the voting system.

"There are so many people here who can't understand what it is," he said.

But John Doornbos, 69, another Olive Grove resident, said the system was easier than paper ballots. He benefited from one asset of the system--the computer he used pointed out a mistake and allowed him to correct it.

"It was a lot easier," said Doornbos, who cast his ballot for Vice President Al Gore. "I voted the other way since the late 1940s. And I like this way a lot better."

Many regions of the country have experimented in recent years with technology designed to streamline the voting process. In Los Angeles County, hundreds of voters cast their ballots before election day on similar devices, and Las Vegas voters have used a simpler predecessor of electronic voting since 1996.

But the real test came Tuesday, when Riverside became the first county in California to adopt the system wholesale, using the touch-screen machines at 715 polling locations from Corona to the Arizona border.

It was the largest application of the technology nationwide and attracted interest from officials across the world. Representatives from several areas of the state were monitoring the system, as was a delegation from Japan.

A harried but confident Mischelle Townsend, the county's registrar of voters, reported few problems. A couple of machines didn't work, she said, and precinct volunteers had trouble getting a couple of others started. Her office buzzed with excitement and some anxiety about the attention.

"The equipment is a good investment," Townsend said. "It has so many benefits for the electorate. But there are a lot of high expectations."

Supporters say the benefits are clear. Though they cost taxpayers $13 million, the machines eliminate the need for most paper ballots, saving $600,000 in this election alone. Elections officials also need less time to tally votes.

Critics believe that the system, though it cannot be accessed by outside computers, is a stepping stone to Internet voting. That could lead to fraud, they fear. Others think the system will fall into the digital divide--the notion that seniors and minorities have less access to computers than younger, wealthier, white voters.

Matt Barreto sees the technology as a double-edged sword. A research associate at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, Barreto says it's possible the system could streamline voting and encourage more turnout. But he fears that Riverside County's zeal for new technology has brought wholesale change too quickly.

The institute and other organizations were also monitoring the vote Tuesday to investigate its impact on minority communities.

"It is too fast to move in that direction because of the lack of access to the technology," Barreto said. "There is a knowledge barrier and a technological barrier."

Martina Carpenter, an African American retiree, dismissed the concerns. She said she has a computer at her Perris home, and was familiar with the technology she needed to vote for Gore.

"These are easier, and much better than the old way," Carpenter said. "It's great. They should be everywhere."

*

Times staff writer Tom Gorman contributed to this story.

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