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Adding E-Voting Printers Could Cost $23 Million, Counties Say

Some jurisdictions have paper-trail capability included in their costs already. Others will have to find the money, but may be reimbursed.

February 07, 2005|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Local election officials in California say they may have to pay between $18 million and $23 million to comply with a state law requiring printed records of ballots cast on electronic voting machines.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, addressing concerns about the reliability of touch-screen voting machines, signed a law last year that required installation of the printers by Jan. 1, 2006.

Even if state or federal funds eventually cover the cost of the printers, counties may have to pick up the tab initially, officials say.

Five of the 13 counties with electronic voting systems say their suppliers will make the changes at no additional cost because the printers were part of their original contracts. But other counties are wondering where they'll find the money. Orange County estimates it will cost $9 million to make the changes. Riverside County estimates its cost at between $3.4 million and $4.7 million, and Alameda County may have to pay between $5 million and $8 million.

The financial effect on Los Angeles County will be minimal, because it uses only a few electronic voting devices during early voting. For several more years, the county plans to use InkaVote paper ballots on election day.

The four companies that manufacture the state's electronic voting systems need to have their printer systems approved by state and federal regulators. County officials said they could only offer estimates of what the systems would cost -- and only after they were approved.

With local governments bracing for what is expected to be another difficult budget cycle, the costs of adding printing capability to their voting machines would be particularly burdensome, some election officials said.

"Every dollar that [we] seek out of the general fund is money that can't go to local fire, can't go to local law enforcement, can't go to the local library," said Cathy Darling, chief elections official in Shasta County, which expects to spend $200,000 to add printing capability to its voting machines.

The Legislature and Schwarzenegger called for the change last year after heavy lobbying from activists who say printed records provide security against fraud and equipment malfunction. The paper trail also can be used for recounts.

Once voters make their ballot choices on electronic machines, they will be able to view printouts to make sure they match the choices they made electronically. The printouts will be kept behind a glass screen so voters won't be able to take copies with them. Instead, the receipts will be stored and available in case they're needed for a recount.

"Electronic voting machines pose new risks that weren't present with our old voting systems," said David Wagner, a computer science professor at the University of California. "There's a new risk of wholesale fraud on a very large scale where one individual could affect hundreds of thousands or millions of votes.

"The paper audit trail was designed to enable voters to verify their votes were recorded correctly, enable a recount and protect against malicious insiders," he said. "Right now, it's the only solution we have to protect touch-screen machines from those kinds of threats."

Still, many county registrars said they believed that the printouts were an unnecessary burden. They note that there's no evidence that electronic voting machines have been tampered with in a California election, and call the machines safe and reliable.

"I really don't think it's necessary. I really don't. But unfortunately the people who wanted it have raised such a fuss that they've created this atmosphere of distrust in the public," said Alameda County Registrar Brad Clark.

The state law, sponsored by Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), calls for the state to pick up the costs of the new equipment. But many county officials said they were concerned that the money wouldn't be available before they placed their orders. And they note that counties have not been reimbursed for many other projects the state called on them to complete.

Conny McCormack, registrar of voters in Los Angeles County and president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials, said she believed that federal money from the Help America Vote Act would cover the cost of the new printers.

California's share of that money was frozen because of an investigation into alleged mishandling by Kevin Shelley, who resigned Friday as secretary of state.

Clark said he would prefer to spend the money on computers or training, but was resigned to using Help America Vote Act funds for the printers.

"It really irks me to have to use federal money that's supposed to be used on other things to pay for a state mandate. [But] we'll probably have to use the federal money because it'll be the only money we will have," Clark said.

Other counties won't have the same problem. Santa Clara, San Diego, San Bernardino, San Joaquin and Kern counties have contracts with suppliers who agreed to provide the printers if they were ever required by state law.

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