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Delay in State E-Voting Is Suggested

After many glitches with computer balloting, senators want fixes before trying it again.

March 12, 2004|Eric Bailey and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — With electronic voting problems buffeting several counties during last week's presidential primary, a bipartisan pair of state senators called Thursday for mothballing the new machines until all the glitches can be worked out.

Sens. Don Perata, an Oakland Democrat, and Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) sent a letter to the state's top election official asking that the new e-voting systems not be used in November's presidential election.

The pair also told Secretary of State Kevin Shelley they are prepared to push through emergency legislation to force decertification of electronic voting systems deployed in 14 California counties constituting 40% of the state electorate.

Although most counties reported no problems with the new systems, some of the most populous -- Orange, Alameda and San Diego counties -- experienced snafus that sullied election day and sent ripples of outrage around the state.

"I think it's fair to say from the evidence so far that the test flight crashed and burned," Perata said, adding that no one wants California to "be the sequel in 2004" to the 2000 voting debacle in Florida.

Doug Stone, a Shelley spokesman, said the state's election chief "shares the same concerns" and noted that a review had been launched into the accuracy, security and accessibility of all the e-voting systems used in the March 2 primary.

The request by Perata and Johnson came a day after two U.S. senators called for a law requiring that electronic voting machines produce paper records to ensure the integrity of the vote and provide accuracy in recounts. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Bob Graham of Florida, both Democrats, said they have drafted measures they contend are needed to restore citizen confidence in vote systems.

Officials in California have also put pressure on manufacturers of the electronic voting systems to begin producing machines that spit out a paper trail.

Shelley late last year mandated that a voter-verified paper trail be produced by e-voting machines by July 2005. Last month, he issued directives meant to beef up the security of voting machines, which some critics say could be tampered with to throw an election. Shelley would have to act by early May to decertify the machines to ensure that e-voting was shelved for November's election.

Perata said last week's election proved that the new electronic voting systems are "a failure," and demonstrate that county election officials "need to go back to the drawing board."

Though the state continues to battle a budget deficit, both senators said they would be amenable to pushing for more money to help counties reverse course until problems with the e-voting systems are ironed out.

David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, which supplied touch-screen voting machines to Alameda, San Diego and four other California counties, said the firm believes it would be a mistake to shelve the new systems even temporarily.

"I think it would be real unfortunate if the advantages of electronic voting were not offered," he said. "They open up so many doors," such as providing alternative languages and the ability for the disabled to more easily vote without assistance.

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation said the new voting systems hold promise, but would be hard pressed to win public trust without modifications to produce a paper trail. Moreover, Alexander said, volunteer poll workers often lack the training to deal with computer glitches that can crop up.

"It's like putting a fuel cell engine into a Model-T Ford," she said. "If you step on the gas, the thing will fall apart or explode." In Orange County, poll workers struggling with an electronic system allowed many voters to cast ballots for the wrong precincts. A Times analysis found that about 7,000 voters may have been caught by the snafu. Many of them were given ballots for the wrong state legislative races.

The county's registrar of voters, Steve Rodermund, said he expects that any bugs will be worked out in time for the presidential election.

"There are issues, and we're going to resolve those issues," Rodermund said. "Electronic voting needs to go forward." Problems in Orange County were caused when poll workers provided voters with incorrect access codes to type into the machines. By entering the wrong codes, they voted on ballots from neighboring precincts. Voting in Alameda County, meanwhile, halted in some precincts as workers grappled with glitches. The county experienced at least 200 voting problems in the first hours of the election.

In San Diego, a computer battery problem affected about 40% of polling stations, delaying voters who lined up to cast electronic ballots. But a county report said there was no way to measure how many people may have been unable to vote.

Poll workers were flummoxed when they turned on machines to find they weren't displaying the proper software page.

Though only four computer clicks were needed to advance to the correct screen, many workers had no idea how to do so.

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