SACRAMENTO —— As California rolls toward a train wreck with federal
and state laws, voting activists told state elections officials that Diebold and
its voting machines aren't welcome along for the ride.
Witness after witness — Bay Area liberals seasoned with a few Libertarians
and Republicans — called on state officials Thursday to block Diebold's
voting machines from the nation's largest elections market, casting the firm as
synonymous with lost trust and vote "theft" in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
In a jam-packed hearing punctuated by chanting, activists demanded paper ballots
be counted by hand, by computers running open-source software if absolutely
necessary, but never by secret software closely held by a company known for
executive support of Republicans ranking as high as the presidency.
"If you value democracy you will not certify these hackable machines with
secret mechanisms that are considered proprietary," said Berkeley's Phoebe
Anne Sorgen. "You will dump Diebold Elections Systems and software."
"If you throw them out of this state, they're dead. Their backs are up
against the wall," said Jim March, a Sacramento Republican and activist
Looking over the angry crowd of more than 200, the chairman of California's
Voting Systems and Procedures Panel decided against making a recommendation
to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, a break with a panel tradition of prompt
approvals of voting systems.
If McPherson follows the activists' advice, counties will flirt with breaking
January 2006 deadlines in state and federal law. The federal Help America Vote
Act requires handicapper-accessible voting machines in every polling place nationwide.
California law requires any county using touch-screen voting machines to offer
a paper printout so voters can verify their electronic ballot choices and so
that local elections officials have a paper record for recounts.
Those laws are driving counties to shop for new voting equipment that ultimately
will be the tools of democracy for much of California in the next congressional
and presidential elections, not to mention local races and initiatives. Two
proposed voting systems by Diebold and Election Systems & Software are vying
to count those votes, and if approved by the state probably would be used by
at least half of Bay Area voters.
For now, only one voting machine made by Sequoia Voting Systems comes close
to meeting both laws, though even it hasn't been proven to work in California's
polyglot of languages or approved for primary elections.
"Counties have to have certified voting equipment," said Los Angeles
County Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack, president of a state association
local elections officials. She says they're getting nervous: "The whole
environment is uncertain."
Diebold offered its system as capable across the board. Alameda County elections
officials are eager to swap out their old Diebold touchscreens for the new TSx
machines, which print a so-called paper trail for voters to view, at an estimated
cost of $5.4 million.
But it was clear Thursday that Diebold and its TSx had its own shortcomings.
The paper-trail printer failed badly and jammed in initial state tests. A new
round of tests in early June on a more refined, "pre-production" unit
went smoothly, though state testers noted that it still makes ratcheting sounds
"like a New Year's noisemaker" and uses temporary, thermal paper.
"It seems obvious that this system is designed not to be used for a recount
or a count, and that seems to be the point," said Judy Bertelsen, an East
Bay activist with the California Election Protection Coalition.
Despite promises of new, tighter security controls more than a year ago, Diebold
still would set important security codes and keys for elections administrators
at its factory in McKinney, Texas.
The machine offers no mouth controls for paraplegics, amputees and severe arthritics.
And while unimpaired voters get a paper trail, blind voters simply have their
electronic ballot read back to them by the touchscreen. For those reasons, handicapped
advocates joined voting activists in urging rejection of the machine.
"Now because of all the upset about not being able to trust the machines,
we've added all this complexity for people with disabilities," said Patricia
Yeager, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living
Centers. "There are advocates at both the state and federal level watching
what's happening here. Are they going to discriminate against us?"
Today, the voting-systems panel continues hearings on a suite of new Election
Systems & Software machines, including the AutoMark, a device that allows
handicapped voters to mark their ballots largely unassisted. It too has a shortcoming:
Blind voters find it difficult to insert a ballot, pull it back out and then
insert it in another machine elsewhere for counting.
Warren Slocum, the registrar of voters in San Mateo County, pressed unsuccessfully
for state lawmakers to let his voters cast their ballots entirely by mail, as
Oregon voters have for years. But Democrats and Republicans suspected the other
party might benefit more and rejected the idea, so he's stuck with voting machines,
expected to cost the county $7 million.
"Now we're faced with spending millions of dollars on a technology that
in many ways is suspect," he said. "We need more choices. There need
to be better products — products that work."