July 29, 2008 By Steve Towns, Editor
Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her decision to sharply limit electronic voting machine use in her state. The award, presented by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, recognizes public officials who make tough decisions without regard to personal or professional consequences.
In August 2007, Bowen set strict limits on the use of e-voting technology known as direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, citing troubling security flaws in the systems. The move angered e-voting machine vendors and sent California counties - which had invested $450 million in new voting hardware - scrambling to prepare for the state's Feb. 5, 2008, presidential primary election.
At first glance, Bowen is an unlikely opponent of DREs, which typically allow citizens to vote via touchscreen. Since being elected to the California state Legislature in 1992, Bowen has helped pioneer the use of Web technology to interact with voters and promote government transparency. She was elected secretary of state in 2006.
Bowen talked to Government Technology about her e-voting decision and the future of electronic voting. She also discussed some of the other technology challenges facing California.
GT: How did you arrive at your e-voting decision?
Bowen: When I took office, I commissioned a top-to-bottom review of all our voting systems: paper-based optical scan systems, as well as the e-voting or touchscreen systems. The University of California took the lead, and it involved universities and private-sector people from around the country. I have about 700 pages of documentation that are publicly available on my Web site, and I had another private security report that was released only to me and the people involved because it has secrecy issues. It was really clear that there was no way we could guarantee existing equipment in the field had not already been compromised, and that we could not prevent compromises from affecting future elections. It was also clear that there was no [method] people felt was trustworthy to audit something where the vote was stored electronically. So we simply went to an older, tested technology that we've had billions of pages of experience with: the optical scan system.
GT: What's the status of e-voting for the November general election?
Bowen: The touchscreen machines, which I think are what people think of as e-voting machines, were recertified, but only to allow one per precinct in counties where that was the means of providing access to disabled voters, and for early voting with a 100 percent count against the paper trail. Counties that were using exclusively electronic voting machines have switched back to optical scan. Every county in California has optical scan capability because 41 percent of our voters in the last election voted by mail. The only way you can handle a vote-by-mail election of that size is with high-speed optical scanners. It was critical to make these decisions before the February primary because we didn't want county elections officials or voters having to change voting equipment between the February primary, the June primary and the November general election.
GT: As a California state lawmaker, you had a reputation for understanding and using technology. How did that experience color your approach to the e-voting issue?
Bowen: I found that the more time someone has spent on the inside of the software and computer industry, the more likely they are to express to me their concerns about relying on computers for tallying and recording the vote. People who have been inside know all the things that can go wrong.
GT: Without that experience, you may not have spotted deficiencies in e-voting?
Bowen: There's no question. When I first read the initial reports on security and
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