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The State

Ex-Officials Now Behind New Voting Machines

Those who led the state's ballot-count reforms now work for the firms making the equipment.

November 10, 2003|Tim Reiterman and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

As secretary of state in 2001, Bill Jones moved to rid California of the type of antiquated voting machines that helped throw the presidential election into turmoil in Florida. Then last year he sponsored a successful $200-million industry-backed bond measure that gave counties money to buy high-tech replacements.

Now, the former elections chief is a paid consultant to one of the major voting machine firms vying for that business.

One of his former top aides has become a vice president for business development with the same company, Sequoia Voting Systems. Another former employee is working on Sequoia business strategies.

And the official who oversaw the certification of new voting machines under Jones has signed on as a competitor's California general manager.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Voting machines -- An article in Monday's Section A about voting machine companies hiring former government officials misspelled the surname of former Sacramento mayor and state Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg as Eisenberg.

Out of the tumultuous 2000 presidential election has come a national initiative to replace punch-card voting devices with modern optical-scanning and touch-screen systems. And in California, where 54 counties are expected to buy about $400 million in new equipment, some voting machine makers are hiring former government officials such as Jones to supply prestige, entre or expertise for a competitive edge.

There is no prohibition against former officials working for election machine companies, unless they lobby their old agency within a year of leaving. And elections officials and vendors defend their close relationships, saying that they improve election systems and benefit the public.

But Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, said, "The regulators and the regulated are so closely intertwined that the regulators go almost exclusively to [the vendors] for information and answers to questions."

Several major voting machine companies do more than provide technical expertise and guidance on new regulations. They spend thousands of dollars on major conferences of election officials from coast to coast. They pay for booths to display their wares. They foot the bill for hospitality suites and, sometimes, banquets, pool parties and boat outings -- even a Maine lobster bake.

In Ohio, one vendor competing for $100 million in contracts recently treated election officials to free meals, limousine rides and concert tickets. And that prompted a state ethics commission to remind county elections offices that taking gifts from vendors is illegal.

In Los Angeles, Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, said, "The companies have to recognize that the government is not like business, and you don't wine and dine government officials.

"We need to have confidence in government, and the confidence is already low."

Fifty-four of California's 58 counties will have to install at least one touch-screen voting machine per polling place by 2006 to accommodate disabled voters. (Four counties already have touch-screen machines.) And six counties, including Los Angeles, which has more than 4 million registered voters, are racing to meet a court-imposed deadline to replace punch-card systems by the March presidential primary.

Huge sums will be available. Proposition 41 was approved by voters last year; it provides $200 million to upgrade election systems. Counties are expected to pick up a third of the cost of such an upgrade. And the state is seeking $127 million more through the federal Help America Vote Act.

Jones, a family farmer from Fresno and a potential Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, was a central figure in the state's push toward revamping voting systems during his eight years as elections chief. He decertified punch-card machines in 2001, and the next year -- along with then-Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, who is now secretary of state -- co-sponsored the proposition that raised money for new machines.

Jones said in an interview that he took the actions to provide California with a means of replacing dinosaur voting systems doomed by lawsuits and court rulings, not to benefit elections companies.

He denied that his actions created an appearance of conflict, saying that there had been no money for new systems, "and counties could not deal with it themselves."

As his term wound down last year, Jones sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination but lost. He returned to private life in January and several months later began part-time consulting for Sequoia; he wouldn't say how much he is paid. He also serves on Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition team.

Before Jones left office, an assistant secretary, Alfie Charles, began setting his sights on his own next job.

Charles, who was Jones' spokesman, had worked on communications for the Proposition 41 drive, which was financed almost entirely with $100,000 from Sequoia and $50,000 from another vendor, Election Systems & Software. He had also sat on the panel that recommended to Jones which election machines could be sold in California.

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