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Most of State's Vote Systems Not Ready

Electronic machines in 53 counties, including L.A., are still uncertified for the June primary.

January 19, 2006|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Only five of California's 58 counties have electronic voting systems ready for the June primary, state election officials told a state Senate committee hearing Wednesday.

"While we're moving as fast as possible, much of the time needed for each system is out of our control," said Bill Wood, undersecretary of state.

To be ready by June, manufacturers must apply for state certification by Jan. 31, he said. Officials have not said what will happen to counties whose systems are not certified.

Election officials with the secretary of state's office were grilled about their progress by Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), chairwoman of the Senate committee charged with overseeing election laws.

A county's voting system must be certified by the state in time for counties to comply with state and federal mandates that voters be able use the machines and verify their choices from a paper printout.

The counties with systems already certified are Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Stanislaus.

The rest have urged Secretary of State Bruce McPherson to speed up testing and approvals.

"Obviously, if a county is relying on certification to be done in time and it doesn't happen, it's going to be a hell of a scramble," Bowen said at the conclusion of the four-hour hearing in Sacramento.

"We have a very big task ahead of us," said committee co-chairman Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta).

Problems have arisen throughout California and across the country since electronic voting machines came into widespread use in 2004.

Seventeen California counties are relying on machines that proved vulnerable to computer hacking; software glitches in machines used in an additional 11 counties prompted McPherson's office to send a letter to a manufacturer in December threatening to pull certification if the bugs weren't fixed.

At Wednesday's hearing, officials also revealed errors in ballot counts in Solano and Merced counties during the November special election, and said Orange County's ballots contain a serial number making it possible to tie the ballot to an individual voter -- a violation of privacy requirements. McPherson has ordered the machines fixed, officials said.

Seven county registrars spoke of their frustrations over the slow pace of state approvals, which officials blamed in turn on delays in federal certification. States cannot certify systems until they have passed federal muster.

A dozen other people spoke, most representing voting-rights groups critical of the way electronic voting has progressed since Congress ordered election reforms after the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida.

Bowen demanded that McPherson make public his plan for testing a dozen systems that counties have either already bought or hope to use in June. State officials so far have distributed only a general testing plan, though systems are tested differently because each contains proprietary software.

"The real point is that people need confidence in the systems," Bowen said.

Also discussed were Diebold voting machines already bought by 17 California counties and complaints about that system's weaknesses. The machines are still unapproved by the state.

Other voting problems were acknowledged at Wednesday's hearing, including a lack of standards for the paper printouts that the state requires so that voters can verify their ballot choices. The printouts must be stored and used for recounts.

McPherson's office also is wrestling with how to make paper printouts accessible to disabled voters who cannot read them, Wood said. However, no system is fail-safe, Wood said. Problems often arose with the old system of casting and counting paper ballots.

"There are things that happen during elections," he said.

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