County election officials scrambled on Saturday to develop contingency plans for the February presidential primary election after California's secretary of state imposed broad restrictions on electronic voting machines that she said are susceptible to hacking.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified the voting machines used in 39 counties, including Los Angeles County's InkaVote system.
She said some of the systems could be recertified in time for the primary if new security upgrades are made.
L.A. County's system, with which voters use ink devices to mark ballots that are tabulated with a scanner, could be recertified by February. The county did not submit the system for an audit by Bowen's office, and that appears to be why it was decertified.
But Bowen's rules so strictly curtail the use of some machines that some counties on Saturday mulled a return to paper ballots for the February vote.
The decision places California at the center of the national debate on electronic voting machines. And with Bowen's action, the state now has some of the nation's strictest regulations governing their use.
Bowen's decision won praise from some activists who for years have argued that computer voting is vulnerable to hackers who could change the results of elections.
Last week, Bowen's office released its audit of the electronic voting machines used in California that found some could be manipulated either by breaking into the hardware or by hacking into the software.
"When NASA discovers a [flaw] or a potential safety concern in the space shuttle, it doesn't continue launching the missions," Bowen said at a news conference Saturday. "It scrubs the missions until the problem is fixed."
But county registrars around the state blasted Bowen, accusing her of political grandstanding that has thrown the election process into turmoil when there is no evidence electronic voting is any more problematic than paper balloting.
In Riverside County, officials said Bowen's decision is setting them back years. The county was on the cutting edge seven years ago when it became the first in the country to use touch-screen voting in a major election. Since then, electronic machines have been used in 39 elections with hardly any problems, said Barbara Dunmore, the county's registrar.
But Bowen ruled that the county's machines can be used only for early voting and on election day by disabled people, because the machines are easy to reach. All other voters will need to use a different system.
The county could have to buy as many as 650 booths and the kind of optical scanners and other equipment used for paper balloting, at a cost of at least $5 million, Dunmore said.
"We were the pioneers," lamented county Supervisor Bob Buster. "After all our investment, we're jammed now, whatever we do. Making changes at this point is problematic."
Dunmore said the county's 32-foot "vote-mobile," which took voting machines to rural and poor residents, will probably be rendered useless except for voter registration drives.
Contra Costa County Registrar Stephen Weir predicted a chaotic few months, perhaps with some counties going to court in an attempt to keep electronic voting.
"Tens of millions of additional ballots: You don't just go to Kinkos," Weir said. "The timing is way too tight."
He also said he thought the changes could delay the counting of votes on primary night; California has a key early primary next spring.
"If people don't see results, they start going, 'Something's wrong,' " Weir said.
On Feb. 5, California voters will decide party candidates in the presidential primary election and will consider at least two state ballot measures.
In the June 3 statewide primary, they will select party candidates for legislative and congressional races. Winners of the party races, including presidential candidates, will compete in the Nov. 4, 2008, general election.
The hardest-hit counties were the 39 using machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems or Sequoia Voting Systems. Bowen ruled that those machines could be used only in special circumstances.
Among the counties affected are Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.
San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler said an all-paper requirement would be "pretty onerous," with 1.38 million registered voters in the county.
San Bernardino County Registrar Kari Verjil said she was going to huddle with the county counsel to discuss options. She said that if her county goes to paper balloting, it would have to buy voting booths and optical scanners and retrain poll workers.
Dunmore, Riverside County's registrar, said she is less worried about producing a paper ballot for the February primary than for the November general election.
"With all the nation going to election, I'm concerned about the capacity of certified printers for all the ballots for all of California," Dunmore said.