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Marathon wait to see if state's voting systems will be allowed

August 04, 2007|Hector Becerra and Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Weighing the fate of how Californians will vote in February's presidential primary, Secretary of State Debra Bowen was holed up in her Sacramento office late Friday, deciding how many of the state's 58 counties would be allowed to use computerized balloting.

Bowen was under a legal deadline of midnight Friday to certify election machines across the state, including electronic systems that an audit released by her office last week found could be easily hacked into, potentially compromising millions of votes.

If Bowen decertified the machines, county election officials would have six months to find replacement systems -- likely some form of paper balloting.

Bowen had originally said she would announce her decision around noon Friday.

But the former Democratic state senator from the South Bay remained behind closed doors well into the night, as county officials were glued to their phones and a growing crowd of reporters, interest groups and state officials gathered outside her office.

Some decamped to a Mexican restaurant across the street, where they sipped margaritas while awaiting word.

Rumors swirled that Los Angeles County's InkaVote balloting system would decertified; Bowen's office would not confirm or deny it. When pizza arrived at her office around 8 p.m., the crowd's hopes for an imminent announcement faded.

"That was not a good sign for those of us waiting," said Bill Gatlin, chief of staff to Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia).

Gatlin's boss, monitoring events from San Bernardino County, was more pointed. "This is the most frustrating thing. Why would she do something like this, make people wait this long for something that should have been taken care of ages ago?" Adams asked.

Whatever her decision, it is likely to place California in the center of the national debate about the susceptibility of electronic voting systems to hacking, an issue being hashed out in Congress as well as in statehouses.

The audit Bowen released last week was considered one of the most comprehensive reviews ever of electronic voting systems. It found that machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems -- which are used by more than a dozen California counties, including Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Ventura -- could be compromised either through manipulating the software or physically breaking into the computer hardware.

There has been much debate around the country about the potential for electronic voting machines to be infiltrated by hackers trying to changes the results of races.

Increasingly, states are moving toward electronic voting machines, prompting lawmakers and other to argue over what can be done to prevent hacking. Congress has been debating whether to require all electronic voting machines to produce paper records.

Bowen has long been outspoken in her concerns about electronic voting. Last year, she defeated incumbent Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, a Republican who was appointed to the job by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005. The campaign hinged largely on the candidates' differences over the trustworthiness of the voting machines.

During the March 2004 primary in California, touch-screen voting terminals by Diebold malfunctioned, and state election officials discovered that the machines contained uncertified software.

The state barred four counties from using Diebold but later approved their use in 11 counties after those jurisdictions agreed to new security requirements, including making paper ballots available as an alternative.

Bowen's audit has been harshly criticized by election officials across the state who said the testing was done in a manner inconsistent with real-life situations.

The University of California was given the task of infiltrating the three companies' machines physically and electronically without facing the safeguards that voting machine vendors or counties use. The testers were provided with encrypted source codes by the companies that government employees would not have.

"It was akin to testing the security of your money in a bank with unlocked doors, with no security guards or even bank tellers in sight and the bank's vault wide open," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack.

Other election officials said decertifying machines now would cause major problems. "Six months is not a lot of time to make any wholesale changes," San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler said.

hector.becerra@latimes.com

jordan.rau@latimes.com

For the latest news on the electronic voting decision, go to latimes.com.

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