SACRAMENTO — To spare California the sort of election debacle that stalled the 2000 presidential contest in Florida, Secretary of State Bill Jones on Tuesday ordered Los Angeles and eight other counties to purchase new voting machines.
By January 2006, the counties must replace voting systems now used by 55% of the state's voters, or 8.6 million people.
Jones ordered the nine counties to get rid of punch-card voting devices that date to 1964 and have the potential to leave little bits of punched-out paper--called chads--hanging from ballots and confounding counters. Replacing Los Angeles County's system alone could cost $100 million.
Jones also urged Gov. Gray Davis to sign a bill that would put a bond measure on the March ballot to help counties pay for the conversion to more modern machines. But that $200-million bond would not cover the cost of replacing all the devices, and county elections officials say they are hoping for federal dollars too.
"We haven't identified any funding, but we realize we have to move forward," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack. "We've had 33 years of punch cards. It's time for a change. It's clearly not an optimum election system."
In November, contested punch cards in Florida bogged a vote recount and kept America waiting 36 days to learn whether George W. Bush or Al Gore had won the presidency. Florida poll workers eyed tens of thousands of ballots, looking for dimpled and hanging chads.
"California cannot wait for a Florida-style election debacle to occur before making these necessary changes to protect the democratic process and the fundamental right of free people to vote," said Jones, who has authority under state law to certify voting methods.
The action by Jones, a Republican candidate for governor, severs the plank on which Democrat March Fong Eu had set out to run to become California's next secretary of state. Eu served as secretary of state from 1974 to 1994, and when she launched a campaign to regain the job in January, she promised to outlaw the punch-card voting system.
Jones' move also seems to render moot a lawsuit filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. That suit contends a disproportionate number of votes in some counties, including Los Angeles, are not counted because of outdated, inaccurate punch-card voting devices.
Jones lost a motion to dismiss the suit in August, and a trial date was set for Jan. 14.
Besides Los Angeles County, the nation's biggest election district with 4 million voters, other counties affected by Jones' decision are Alameda, Mendocino, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara, Shasta and Solano.
McCormack said the punch-card method is popular because it costs just 7 cents per voter and minimizes printing bills.
Jones did not move to ban a punch-card system in which voters use a hole-punch device that cleanly removes chads. Called Datavote, the system is used in 24 California counties, including Orange County. Another 24 counties require voters to fill in bubbles with a pen or pencil.
Last year, Riverside County became the first county in the nation to use computer touch-screen voting in every precinct. Voters press their finger on the name of the candidates they choose, and the results are tabulated rapidly.
Since 1999, Jones has approved four new touch-screen voting systems for use in California, and these may be selected by the counties forced to abandon punch-card systems.
Los Angeles County tested touch-screen voting at nine sites in the month before the November election, McCormack said. Overwhelmingly, voters reported liking the method, she said.
McCormack has asked the Board of Supervisors for $3 million to expand touch-screen voting to 40 locations in the weeks before the November 2002 election. And if the $200-million bond wins voter approval in March, Los Angeles County could be eligible for $75 million of that money, she said.
But the overall bill for replacing the county's punch-card system could be $100 million, McCormack said. A 3-1 matching provision in the bond means Los Angeles County would have to come up with $25 million. Some of that money could come from Washington, McCormack said.
"We think we will eventually get some bill out of Congress to help us with matching money," she said.
The bill that would put the $200-million bond on the March ballot is on the governor's desk. A spokesman said Davis has not yet had an opportunity to review the bill, AB 56 by Assemblymen Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco) and Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks).
In all, replacing about 65,000 punch-card voting devices in the nine counties could cost a total ranging from $65 million to $260 million, depending on which replacement systems are chosen, Jones said.