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First of two parts : CAMPAIGN '08: SUPER TUESDAY

A paper jam roils state vote

There's a rush in California to replace decertified electronic devices with printed ballots and scanners.

January 28, 2008|Ralph Vartabedian and Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writers

Riverside County was in the vanguard of a new electronics era in 2000, when it became the first county in the nation to convert to computerized voting machines.

With the new technology, voters were able to cast their ballots up to 10 days early and miles outside their own precincts at shopping malls. An RV outfitted as an electronic polling station was sent to senior centers, Indian reservations and places deep in the desert.

But after what Riverside Registrar Barbara Dunmore calls 40 successful elections on the $25-million system, those programs are dead. The county has more than 3,000 of the machines in a warehouse, stacked up to the rafters, perhaps never to be used again.

In a series of controversial decisions last year, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified the vast majority of electronic voting machines in the state, arguing that they were vulnerable to tampering and have defects that could corrupt vote counts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Riverside County: An article in Section A on Jan. 28 about ballot issues said Riverside County extended from the Colorado River west to the San Jacinto Mountains. It reaches the Santa Ana Mountains.

As a result of her order, about a third of California counties are scrambling to prepare for the Feb. 5 presidential primary, printing millions of paper ballots, acquiring new optical scanners and pressing into service optical scanners normally used to count absentee ballots.

San Diego, San Bernardino, Santa Clara and Riverside are among 21 counties hit by the decertification, putting thousands of machines worth millions of dollars into storage.

The counties believed the machines provided a bulwark against a disputed election, like the one that hit Florida's punch-card system in 2000. In their view, that election demonstrated an accuracy problem, not a security problem. Nonetheless, the electronic machines are under a cloud.

Bowen enlisted a team of eminent computer scientists from top laboratories and universities. They were able to hack into every type of voting machine. "People just don't trust them," Bowen said about the electronic machines. "You only have one chance to get an election right."

The systems in Los Angeles County, which already uses paper ballots, and in Orange County were recertified and do not expect major problems.

But some county registrars are warning of potential problems if elections are close, because paper ballots are sometimes mismarked and must be interpreted for the actual voter intent -- just as with the Florida punch cards of hanging-chad notoriety.

Election results also will be reported far later than normal, because tons of paper ballots must be hauled to county headquarters and manually fed into the scanners. They sound like blenders chopping ice, and sometimes send ballots flying across the room.

In San Bernardino, a test run of paper ballots in November found that optical scanners could count only 10,000 votes per hour. That means it could take more than 17 hours, starting at 10 p.m., to handle the 175,000 votes expected, said Registrar Kari Verjil.

"We will be working all night," she said.

Already, the pace is frenetic. In Riverside, workers are jammed in the warehouse bundling the paper ballots and preparing new voting booths that must be distributed across the county, which sprawls from the Colorado River westward to the San Jacinto Mountains.

In one early sign of trouble, Riverside has issued a warning to voters that some paper ballots were too deeply scored along a fold line and could fall apart when unfolded. Those ballots have been mailed to voters and must be replaced.

Riverside is getting by in this election with more than $700,000 in last-minute spending for new scanners, voting booths and other equipment. It may have to spend millions more in the future. In the coming elections, one electronic machine can still be used in each precinct to provide access for disabled voters, a federal requirement. So Riverside will use 720 of its 3,700 machines.

The decertification by Bowen, a Democrat, has stirred deep resentment in the Republican stronghold.

"This was a shoot-from-the hip political maneuver to help her gain name recognition," said Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone. "This is purely a waste of taxpayer money. When the times are lean, this doesn't help."

The sentiment is similar elsewhere. "Of course it's difficult," Verjil said.

"It seems like every time we get a new secretary of state there is a new voting system," she said. "Who's to say what will happen in four years if we get another secretary of state?"

San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler said Bowen had created unprecedented chaos in preparing for the elections.

Seiler sued Bowen over one new requirement that counties increase audits in close races, even though victory margins often change as more absentee ballots are counted. "We have no idea how we are going to be running our elections week to week," she said. "What is at risk is voter confidence."

Despite the turmoil in other parts of the state, Los Angeles County, the biggest voting district in the nation, does not face any major changes in its balloting system because it was already using the paper scanning method Bowen favors.

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