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State's E-Vote Trust Builds Slowly

After March problems, fewer voters will see electronic machines this fall. But counties are as resolute as ever to switch from paper ballots.

September 27, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Counties across California are preparing for another election day, as determined as ever to convert from paper to electronic voting. But because of a series of blunders in the March primary, fewer Californians will cast their ballots on touch-screen voting machines in November.

About 30% of the state's voters -- 4.5 million people in 10 counties, including Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino -- are expected to use electronic voting machines in November, down from about 40% in the spring.

County election officials say the high-tech machines allow them to collect and count votes more quickly and accurately than older methods by avoiding the shortcomings of paper ballots. But the transition has been rough: In March, the first election in which electronic voting systems were widely used in the state, some voters found touch screens displaying the wrong ballots; others were confronted with malfunctioning machines.

As a result, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the type of machine purchased by four counties, including San Diego -- forcing them to return to paper ballots.

Still, California -- one of 29 states and the District of Columbia to embrace touch-screen voting for November -- is expected to account for about 10% of all voters nationwide who cast paperless ballots. For that reason, election officials around the country are watching California's move toward electronic voting.

Voter-rights advocates say they are encouraging voters in counties with electronic voting to cast absentee ballots or request paper ballots at polling places because of concerns over the new technology.

"People are totally freaked out, and for good reason," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which promotes the responsible use of voting technology. "When people vote, they want their votes to count. That's why we're going to make sure California voters know they have a right to vote on paper."

Indeed, most California voters in November will still cast ballots by filling in circles on paper ballots that will be counted by optical scanning machines.

Los Angeles County voters will have access in the weeks before Nov. 2 to touch-screen machines at several city halls and other government buildings. But on election day, Los Angeles County voters will use the InkaVote paper ballots that were used in March.

Orange County will use electronic voting machines in which voters turn dials to make their selections on a screen. Voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties will cast ballots on touch-screen voting machines. They, like other counties using electronic machines in November, had to scramble to meet conditions imposed by the secretary of state on most counties that used electronic voting in March. Among other rules, Shelley ordered that voters have the option of using paper ballots, such as those provided for absentee balloting.

County election officials and voting machine manufacturers said they were confident electronic balloting would run more smoothly in November than in the spring primary.

They said that last March's election marked the first time many counties used the new voting machines and that valuable lessons were learned.

In Orange County, for instance, election officials revamped their training program after errors by poll workers caused thousands of wrong ballots to appear on voting screens. Volunteers are being given more training and also were given videos to study at home before the election. The county also reorganized polling places so that only one ballot style will be accessible at each of its more than 1,200 voting sites.

"There is no possibility of you getting the wrong ballot style and voting on anything you should not have voted on at any of the polling places," said Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund. "There aren't a lot of things that could go wrong.... Whatever does go wrong will be minor, and we'll be able to react."

In Alameda County, election officials are entangled in a lawsuit with the Texas-based company that produced its touch-screen voting machines, Diebold Election Systems. Alameda County and the state attorney general say Diebold misled them about the security and reliability of the voting system and are seeking millions of dollars in compensation.

There also were questions in Alameda County about problems in the March election when polling-place machines that encode ballots malfunctioned, leaving some voters unable to call up the appropriate ballot. A similar problem created lengthy delays at polling places in San Diego County.

Brad Clark, Alameda County's registrar of voters, said he is confident that an upgraded version of the Diebold machines is accurate and secure.

The county is using a different style of encoding machine in November, and Clark said he does not expect a repeat of the March problems.

"I have a good level of confidence," he said. "The touch screens themselves worked well."

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