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California and the West : CAMPAIGN 2000

A Vote for Electronic Balloting

Elections: In Riverside County, choices will be made on computers. Officials say the system is swift and will save money, but doubters worry about fairness and security.

September 27, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riverside has become the first California county to do away with the venerable paper ballot, adopting instead an electronic system that will enable voters to make their choices in November's general election by touching a computer screen.

Government officials and political party leaders have toyed in recent years with various gadgets designed to streamline and quicken the election process. But according to state and county officials, Riverside County's 615,000 registered voters will be the first in the state to move wholesale into new technology, using machines like ATMs at all 715 polling locations from Corona to the Arizona border. It is the largest application of the technology nationwide.

The new system has obvious benefits. Compiling results on election night will take half as long as tallying paper ballots, and voters can change their mind midway through voting. While many paper ballots are thrown out because of mistakes, such as errant pencil marks, the new system will point out mistakes--such as three candidates chosen for two open school board seats--before ballots are cast.

And, while the machines cost Riverside County nearly $13 million, county Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend estimates that the county will save $600,000 in printing and paper costs on this election alone. Townsend is assembling an army of 3,000 volunteers who will introduce the new technology during the Nov. 7 election.

"There are advantages as the technology grows that make the whole election system better," said Hal Dasinger, an elections analyst with the California secretary of state's office in Sacramento who is helping to develop the state's new high-tech voting standards.

Systems like Riverside County's are expected to become the norm. Los Angeles County also will offer voters touch-screen voting in a trial at nine polling places in November. Similar systems have been tested from Piedmont, an affluent Bay Area community, to Cleveland and Beaver County, Pa.

The Riverside County system, though it makes the pencil-and-paper ballot look archaic, is considered just a steppingstone to Internet voting, which has already been used in one binding election. In March, Arizona Democrats used the Internet to vote in the presidential primary, though traditional polling sites were open as well.

But are elections ready to go high-tech? Many say they are not--and in coming years, the public will have to decide not only whom to vote for, but how to vote.

Election officials promoting computer voting can expect opposition from an eclectic group of critics--conspiracy theorists, civil rights organizations worried about voting access for minorities and the poor, and crusty academics concerned about the security of elections.

Shuddering at the prospect of hackers hijacking an election, some say paper ballots aren't quaint relics but modern necessities needed to fight fraud.

Election officials, while they say that no voting system is flawless, agree that there are security concerns with electronic voting. Both the California secretary of state's office and the Federal Election Commission are developing their first standards for using the Internet in elections--and are urging caution.

"The technology gets to a certain point where people get suspicious of it," Dasinger said. "It becomes hard to verify things like freedom from fraud and manipulation."

Critics have a host of problems with electronic voting systems.

Many cite the so-called digital divide and say that the poor, minorities and the elderly--groups that, statistically, have less exposure to computers--could be intimidated by the new systems.

"You thought it was hard to choose between Bush and Gore. Now you've got to figure out how these things work," said Marc Strassman, executive director of Valley Village-based Smart Initiatives Project, a group that favors electronic voting in principle but is skeptical of the touch-screen system.

What makes sense to technically savvy bureaucrats may not work for some real voters, say critics.

"I wish that elections officials would do more homework on their own communities before they go to the expense of buying the glitziest system they can," said Deborah Phillips, chairwoman of the Voting Integrity Project.

Phillips' organization, based in Arlington, Va., went to court to block online voting in Arizona's Democratic primary. The group argued unsuccessfully that the system discriminates against minorities and the poor.

"It's a very valid concern in Riverside County too," Phillips said. "It can sound like the best thing since sliced cheese, but if it's intimidating and hard to use, it's not the right choice."

But the overriding concern is fraud.

Jim Condit Jr., director of Citizens for a Fair Vote Count, a Cincinnati-based organization, represents one end of the peculiar alliance fighting innovation in elections.

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