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Electronic voting is facing a recall

Officials are switching systems or trying to fix problems, even as they contend with new laws and earlier primaries.

January 29, 2008|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

Electronic voting was widely embraced -- with the help of the federal government -- as the cure for inaccuracies in vote counting that roiled the 2000 presidential election.

But eight years later, the fix has spawned a new round of bitter controversy.

Uncertainty, legal challenges and, in some cases, chaos are gripping voting offices as they contend with allegations that the electronic machines are ridden with defects and vulnerable to manipulation.

Local and state administrators are switching systems or trying to patch up problems at the last minute, even as they contend with new laws, earlier primaries, complex ballots and, in some places, shortages of poll workers.

Registrars and secretaries of state are hoping to avert a disaster, but they warn that vote counts will be late and that winners of contests may not be known until the morning after elections. They also are bracing for an onslaught of legal challenges to the outcomes.

"It is causing senior elections officials to pull their hair out," said Stephen L. Weir, Contra Costa County clerk and head of a California association of registrars. "People are buckling down just to pull off this election."

At least four states -- California, Ohio, Colorado and Florida -- are moving to severely limit or eliminate electronic voting machines, which were rushed into service with $3 billion of federal funding over the last eight years.

Legal challenges are being filed almost daily over voter registration issues and new laws requiring identification, among other matters. Experts say turmoil is unsettling elections offices in most states.

The reforms that led to the problems began almost as soon as the Supreme Court issued a ruling that brought the Bush-Gore presidential election to a close. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, which was supposed to usher in an era of precise and secure electronic voting.

With key voting dates approaching, counties and states are trying to switch back to paper ballots amid allegations that the electronic machines have unknown defects and are vulnerable to tampering.

"We are at a high-water mark, but what is extraordinary is that the water has already been high for years," said Doug Chapin, director of, a nonpartisan group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that has tracked voting technology since 2001. "The $3 billion of federal money has created more problems than it solved."

Under a decertification order by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, thousands of electronic voting machines will be kept in storage during the Feb. 5 presidential primaries, as well as the state primaries in June and the general election in November.

The primary results will probably take until 6 a.m. on the day after the election to tabulate, and counting absentee ballots could take additional days, according to interviews with registrars across the state.

"It doesn't take much to spawn a conspiracy theory these days," said a weary Bowen, who has asserted that her review of electronic voting last year demonstrated that the machines lack the necessary security and reliability.

Some registrars around California sharply disagree and say Bowen has contributed to a "mass hysteria" that has led to a record level of confusion and voter distrust.

"This is a singular moment," said Conny McCormack, former registrar of Los Angeles, who quit last year after disagreements with Bowen. "Politics have bled into this. It reminds me of a Third World country when their elections administrators get politicized."

Florida has moved to scrap all of its electronic voting machines after a disputed outcome in the midterm elections of 2006 in Sarasota County. The machines recorded about 18,000 fewer votes in the 13th Congressional District race than in other contests, fueling allegations that the machines had been corrupted. Republican Vern Buchanan won by a few hundred votes, leading to a lengthy though unsuccessful fight by his challenger.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner wants her state to get rid of its electronic machines before the November general elections. She has recommended to the Legislature that it rush through action to authorize paper ballots.

The state used $100 million of federal money from the Help America Vote Act, as well as additional local expenditures, to buy the electronic voting stations. But the new equipment had serious glitches in 2006 elections that resulted in an unknown number of lost votes in Cuyahoga County.

A massive Ohio study of electronic voting, called the Everest report, found last year widespread technical flaws and holes in software security, potentially allowing a hacker to manipulate the vote count without leaving a trace.

"None of our voting systems tested well in Ohio," Brunner said. "We have to use something that will cause the least harm."

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