O.C. Still Favors eSlate Voting

After hearings on March election glitches, a panel of county supervisors wants the state to OK the same system for November.

April 15, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Despite a raft of problems with new electronic voting systems in last month's primary election, Orange County officials on Wednesday concluded three days of public hearings about the issue with pleas to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to allow its electronic balloting to continue for the November general election.

Shelley will hold hearings Wednesday and next Thursday in Sacramento on whether to decertify any of the electronic systems used in California.

He is also expected to adopt standards ensuring that by July 2006, all voters can verify their votes by seeing a paper copy of their ballot before it is cast electronically. The paper ballots would become the official record in case of a recount.

Problems occurred in the March 2 election in Orange, San Diego and Alameda counties, where new electronic systems were used. Voters cast votes prematurely, were given the wrong ballots electronically or were unable to use machines that froze or showed error messages.

Electronic voting systems were used by 14 of California's 58 counties, serving 43% of the electorate.

Among them were most Southern California counties except Los Angeles, whose electorate is so large that officials decided it would have been too difficult to act in time.

Any decision to change voting systems for November must be made by the end of April, according to state guidelines. At the same time, Shelley is facing a threat by two lawmakers prepared to ask the Legislature to suspend the electronic systems if he doesn't on his own.

State Sens. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) and Don Perata (D-Oakland) introduced urgency bills calling for all electronic voting systems in California to be decertified for the November election.

A separate bill by the same lawmakers would allow electronic voting after January but only with verifiable paper ballots available for manual recounts.

"We've given the secretary of state until the end of the month [to act], and then we will move the bills," Johnson's chief of staff, Susie Swatt, said Wednesday. "Ross has said that democracy is too important to leave to a machine."

The swift change in technology came after the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election, which eventually was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which appropriated $3.9 billion to replace punch-card ballot systems that had stymied recount efforts in Florida.

Later that year, California passed Proposition 41, which provided $200 million for upgrading county voting systems.

Orange County's March election costs were covered by $16.8 million from Proposition 41 funds and $6.5 million in federal funds.

Orange County used a system developed by Hart Intercivic of Texas that allowed voters to cast ballots on an eSlate machine, on which they spun a wheel to make their selections. Orange County was the only county to use the system; other counties chose touch-screen technology.

Problems cropped up in Orange County soon after polls opened, with many voters complaining that they were given the wrong ballot, were unable to vote or inadvertently cast ballots before they completed voting.

In a March 30 report to county supervisors, county Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund said about 2,000 voters received ballots listing candidates for whom they were ineligible to vote. The result of one race, for a county Democratic Party Central Committee post, could have been affected by ineligible voters because the final totals were so close, he said.

On the last of three consecutive days of public hearings on Orange County's balloting problems, the committee of two county supervisors monitoring election complaints said Wednesday that the problems on election day were consistent with rolling out such a radically new voting system.

"What occurred was the result of the introduction of a new system, not a fatal flaw," Supervisor Bill Campbell said after the two-hour hearing in Santa Ana.

Supervisor Chris Norby said he was confident the system could be tweaked to reduce problems for November.

Worries about ballot security and voter confidence have arisen with every voting system, he added: With the older systems, "You didn't have hackers with a paper ballot -- you had ballot-stuffing."

Several speakers at this weeks' county hearings said voters' confidence would rise if, as the secretary of state has suggested, they could verify their votes on a paper ballot that would be used if a recount were needed.

That would require a printer for every voting machine -- Orange County has 9,000 -- and more extensive recounts when those are called for, said David Hart, chairman of Hart Intercivic, which manufactured Orange County's voting system.

Vendors have told Shelley's office that adding paper-trail technology would add about 15%, or $60 million, to the estimated $400 million that California counties will have spent by 2006 introducing electronic voting equipment.

"The question becomes: What are we doing?" Hart said.

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