December 19, 2007 By Merrill Douglas
Debra Bowen doesn't hate electronic voting. In fact, California's secretary of state anticipates a time when she can whip out a BlackBerry or iPhone to cast her ballot if she's out of her home district on Election Day.
"But we're not there yet," Bowen said. And there lies the reason why this August, Bowen placed restrictions on the use of certain e-voting machines that left election officials in many counties scrambling to figure out how to hold California's presidential primary on Feb. 5, 2008.
Last spring, Bowen commissioned a team of experts assembled by the University of California to review many of the voting systems previously certified for use in California. As a result of this two-month assessment, Bowen decertified all the systems and then recertified them for use under certain conditions.
For all of the machines, Bowen's office will require election officials to implement stronger security and post-election auditing procedures. Counties may continue to use direct recording electronic (DRE) systems from Hart InterCivic for general voting, as long as they comply with the stiffer security and auditing requirements. But counties may only use DRE systems from Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems to conduct early voting and provide one machine per polling place for disability access.
The ruling hits hardest in 21 of California's 58 counties that have been using the Diebold or Sequoia DRE system for all Election Day voting, said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) and clerk of Contra Costa County.
"The impact on counties is that there's precious little time to put any Plan B into effect," Weir said. Most likely, counties will use their DRE machines to make voting accessible to disabled citizens, he said. However, they'll probably have to revert to using paper ballots for most in-person voting in February.
They can then tally votes in one of two ways: run all ballots through the centrally located optical scanning systems they currently use to count absentee ballots, or buy new scanning systems to count votes at the precinct level.
The Cost of Conversion
The total cost to the 21 counties for converting from DRE to optical scanning will depend on which strategy they choose. If they stick with their centrally located scanners, costs will total about $18 million, Weir said. But adding paper ballots to the absentee ballots the counties already run through their central scanners will slow the counting process, he said. "It's going to take much longer to get a sense of what Election Day looked like for those counties that aren't able to scramble and get a precinct-based system."
Adding lots of new scanners, though, will raise costs considerably. "If you're going to put a precinct-based scanner in all of those 10,000 polling places that are losing their DREs as their main voting, if you train the poll workers and do all the things you have to do, my estimate was about $66 million," Weir said.
Some counties can cover this cost with money they received through California's Voting Modernization Bond Act of 2002, Bowen said. Some still have federal money provided through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). But a few have depleted both sets of funds. "We'll have to work with the counties, as Florida had to do, and New Mexico, to figure out the best way to handle the financial impact of the problem."
In addition, provisions in their contracts with voting system vendors, which require the vendors to provide certified election equipment, protect some counties, Bowen said. If the technology is decertified, the vendor must replace it with another voting system that the county is allowed to use.
California's liberal vote-by-mail policies also should soften the impact of the decertifications. "Close to half of our voters are now voting by
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