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Reversal of Ballot Printout Plan Urged

November 22, 2003|Allison Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

County elections officials, disability-rights groups and government watchdogs called on Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to rescind a directive he issued Friday requiring that all electronic voting systems in California produce a paper ballot that voters could review.

The groups complained that such a move would be costly, pose significant technological hurdles and make it harder for some people to vote.

Shelley defended his decision, arguing that the changes could be implemented by 2006 without significant additional costs and that they are justified because of what he says is a growing crisis of voter confidence.

"I think the world has shifted in the past few months," Shelley said. "Whatever confidence voters might have had in these systems has been eroded."

The directive demands that all electronic voting devices in the state print a paper copy of every ballot as it is cast, so voters can confirm that their choices are being recorded correctly by the machines' digital "ballot boxes." When polls close, elections officials would be able to save the printouts for manual recounts.

Computer scientists, election technology watchdogs and registrars have monitored debates on the security of electronic voting systems, saying some machines could be open to tampering. Auditable paper trails have long been presented as a way to alleviate those concerns.

Two years ago, Shelley included a provision in Proposition 41, an election-system financing bill he wrote, requiring that paper ballots be printed at the close of every election day.

Shelley said that portion of the bill was implemented in a weaker form by former Secretary of State Bill Jones, whose office required only that counties have the capacity to make printouts if needed.

But Friday, Shelley reaffirmed his confidence in the technology itself, insisting that "If I didn't have confidence in the [electronic] machines, I would decertify them."

His decision, he said, was a reaction to what he viewed as widespread popular support for including a paper printout with electronic voting machines. More than 6,000 people sent e-mails, letters and faxes to Shelley's office after a report from the state's task force on electronic voting appeared on the secretary of state's Web site in July, he said.

"The average California voter doesn't necessarily have the confidence in these machines," Shelley said. "If they can see that the vote they put on the machine is what's on the paper, that will increase their confidence."

But officials in the secretary of state's office said many were form letters, and in part reflected campaigning on both sides of the issue, not necessarily the views of average voters.

Mischelle Townsend, the voter registrar of Riverside County, one of the first in the state to implement electronic voting, said that "in none of our elections have we had any complaints."

"This is not something the public is asking for," she said.

Shawn Casey O'Brien, a disability-rights advocate who was a member of the state task force, raised questions about how accessible retooled machines would be for the disabled -- particularly the blind.

"We're about to indulge in a very costly procedure," O'Brien said, reeling off printers, ink cartridges and storage costs in a litany of additional items the new rules would require. "If people have to stand in longer lines because machines are jamming, or there aren't as many of them, they'll be disenfranchised, or it will make their voting that much more difficult."

But Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, defended Shelley's decision, saying the technology can readily be developed and perfected.

"The election officials and people who are resisting the paper trail reform complain that the critics and reformers are complaining about hypothetical problems that don't exist," Alexander said. "But printer jams and long lines at the polls are hypothetical too."

Election equipment vendors insist that they can have the technology ready for use by 2006 -- indeed, one company, Avante International, has a machine that was used for a pilot election in Sacramento County a year ago and now is being reviewed by federal election authorities.

But vendors warn that the new technology would add about 15%, or $60 million, to the estimated $400 million that counties are expected to spend on introducing electronic voting equipment over the next few years.

Shelley said he was confident that money would not be an issue, in part because he will commit federal and state money to help counties that have already bought electronic systems that need to be adapted.

In counties where registrars have not yet bought new equipment, Shelley said, he expected that vendors would be willing to accommodate the cost of the new regulations. He cited the example of Santa Clara County, which recently signed an $18.9-million contract with Sequoia Voting Systems that includes a provision for the company to add a paper ballot upgrade at no extra cost if required.

"If it's going to be the difference between whether they're going to get a contract or not, I suspect they may throw it in for free," Shelley said. "They are trying to make a buck, after all."

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Times staff writer Tim Reiterman contributed to this report.

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