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Voting Machines Now a Symbol of Polls in Disarray

September 16, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

It was once the very symbol of modern, efficient, impersonal technology -- not to be folded, spindled or mutilated. But in the last three years, the humble punch card has become synonymous with something else altogether:

Electoral glitches.

In ruling Monday to postpone California's recall election, a federal appeals court revisited some of the same concerns about punch-card ballots that threw the 2000 presidential election into disarray.

This time, the court said there was no excuse for using an archaic, 19th century technology when more modern means of voting exist.

"Just as the black-and-white fava-bean voting system of revolutionary times was replaced by paper balloting, and the paper ballot replaced by mechanical lever machine, newer technologies have emerged to replace the punch-card," the court wrote.

Punch-card ballots have their advocates, and election officials in several California counties said they were confident they could run a fair election using the old machines.

"We've never had a problem with these machines," Jill LaVine, Sacramento County's interim registrar of voters, said Monday. "We did a lot of testing after the Florida election and we had one of the lowest residual rates around."

Residual rates -- one of those terms, like hanging chad, that entered the popular vocabulary after the 2000 presidential vote in Florida -- measure the percentage of votes that can't be counted for various reasons.

The appeals court based its decision, in part, on testimony from experts who said that punch-card systems are responsible for substantially more uncounted ballots than any of several more modern methods.

The ruling included a lively history of the punch card, which was invented in the late 19th century by Herman Hollerith and used to tabulate the 1890 census. It was first used in Votomatic voting machines in 1964, initially in Georgia and then in San Joaquin and Monterey counties.

"No voting system is foolproof," the court said, "and the Constitution does not demand the use of the best available technology." What it does demand, the court said, is that votes be treated equally -- and thus that different systems have similar rates of error.

Henry Brady, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case, estimated that punch-card systems are at least 2.5 times more prone to error than other systems and could be responsible for 40,000 uncounted votes in the recall election. He based that projection on the assumption that turnout would be 40%, less than most election officials predict.

"It's as if you went to your ATM, and it stole $1.50 from you every time you took out $100," Brady said in an interview Monday. Banks could never get away with that, he said, adding, "Why do we allow voting systems to do that?"

Election officials and other experts insist that, although some of California's punch-card systems had been decertified by the secretary of state because they had been deemed obsolete, they are not as prone to problems as Florida's were in the 2000 presidential election. They say that California registrars have done a better job of maintaining the machines to avoid hanging, pregnant or dimpled chads -- perforations that fail to fall out when punched. And they said that if those anomalies occur, there are detailed guidelines from the secretary of state for determining a voter's intent.

"It is offensive to me that people compare California's voting process to Florida," said Kim Alexander, president of the non-partisan California Voting Foundation in Sacramento. "We used punch cards for almost four decades without any major problems."

Alexander said that ballots using optical scanning -- the system that Los Angeles County intends to employ, beginning in March -- have some advantages over punch-card systems, but that the touch-screen computer systems being deployed in many counties could create more problems than punch cards because there is no voter-verified paper trail to be used in a recount.

R. Michael Alvarez, a Caltech professor of political science and co-leader of a voting machine study, said punch-card systems have two major problems. One is that they are prone to more frequent "overvotes" and "undervotes," in which voters either fail to successfully cast a vote or vote for more candidates than they are allowed.

The other is that members of minority groups, the disabled and those whose first language is not English seem to have higher rates of voting problems with the punch-card systems than with other types. This concern was a basis for the suit the appellate judges ruled on Monday.

Alvarez, like a number of other elections experts, said that, no matter what technology is employed, the 135-candidate gubernatorial ballot will present challenges for voters, election workers and registrars -- and probably will lead to more court challenges.


Times staff writers Allison Hoffman and Sue Fox contributed to this report.

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