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New County Poll System Offers Chad-Free Voting

October 23, 2002|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Got chad phobia?

Los Angeles County election officials Tuesday offered an alternative to the type of punch-card machine that threw the 2000 presidential election into chaos: touch-screen voting machines.

Registered voters began using the machines at midday Tuesday to cast ballots for the Nov. 5 election. The county has installed 21 of the electronic booths at malls, libraries, city halls and community centers throughout the area. Voters can use any of the locations, seven days a week, until Nov. 1.

The county offered touch screens as part of a pilot program during the 2000 election. Several other California counties, including Riverside and Alameda, and a growing number of states use electronic voting.

"This is the wave of the future," Conny McCormack, L.A. County's registrar-recorder, said Tuesday. "It's becoming more and more popular."

Critics, including some political scientists and technology security experts, call the system unreliable and prone to mechanical mishaps.

Others noted that California does not require that the touch-screen computers leave a paper trail, meaning there is no backup in case the computer memory fails.

"I have serious concerns," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Davis. "There's no other transaction that is completely paperless, so why count on touch screens for the one thing that matters more than anything else?"

Banks store and save data from automatic teller machines, but Alexander said electronic voting machines fail to offer that kind of security.

The system has already caused problems. In South Florida, the epicenter of the 2000 presidential debacle, electronic voting caused problems during the gubernatorial primary last month, ranging from workers shutting down the system at the wrong time to delays in setting up the computers.

Studies show that electronic voting does not seem to affect voter turnout, McCormack said. "They show it's more a matter of convenience," she said.

There are six touch screens at each polling site in Los Angeles County. They resemble a desktop computer and cost about $3,000 each. About $675,000 has been spent on the program.

Los Angeles and other California counties are poised to spend millions of dollars on electronic voting systems by 2004, the deadline set earlier this year by a federal judge who ruled that the state must replace outmoded punch-card voting machines. In March, voters approved a $200-million bond measure to buy new election equipment.

McCormack said Los Angeles County's 4 million registered voters will use the touch screens and a paper-based scanner system in 2004.

The early-voting option ends Nov. 1 to allow the county time to provide pollsters with a list of those who have already voted, just as it does with the absentee voters.

McCormack acknowledged that "there's always a chance" the system could fall prey to voter fraud. However, she said there is also a risk with the punch-card method.

San Fernando Valley secessionists were among the first to use the system Tuesday. They gathered at the Panorama City Mall to cast votes in favor of Measure F, the Valley cityhood proposal.

"It is a great experience," secession leader Jeff Brain said of the touch-screen system. "I'm very proud to have made such a historic vote."

Electronic voting locations and times are available at www.lavote.net or by calling the county at (800) 815-2666 (option 5).

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