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Bachelor voting machine No. 3, please do your best Darth Vader imitation: 'Nüz, join me and together we will rule the galaxy.'


HAVA Question?

BOOKSHOP SANTA CRUZ was bustling with people on Aug. 31, but not for the usual literary reasons. The SANTA CRUZ COUNTY CLERK and ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT hosted a public demonstration there of new electronic voting equipment that would enable voters with disabilities to vote "in privacy, unassisted," as required by the federal HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT (HAVA), which goes into effect in January 2006.

Attracted by the chance to win an IPOD, Nüz strolled over to check out the mechanized voting systems and, more importantly, to fill out a survey to enter the drawing.

Imagine our surprise when, instead of being greeted by courteous county elections staff, who would of course hold our hands through the entire process, we instead walked in on what felt more like a retailer's convention of salespeople hawking their wares.

Handsomely dressed representatives of four different companies attended their various electronic voting systems, doing their best to politely answer everyone's questions, often in a way that a preschooler could understand, and always with a smile.

Nüz happened to wander past someone grilling one of the salespeople with questions about the potential for election fraud associated with computerized election systems. Turns out that woman was EMILY LEVY, who was the project coordinator of the RICHARD HAYES PHILIPS PROJECT, a group that worked to uncover election anomalies in Ohio.

"I asked the woman over there," says Levy, indicating the ES&S voting machine salesperson, 'Was this the machine used to steal the election in Ohio?' and she said, 'No, that was a different machine.'"

Levy also said we were seeing an example of "democracy in serious danger," and insisted that we need to continue using paper ballots to ensure that the person who gets the most votes is the person who wins the election.

All of the machines at the demonstration were equipped with paper backups, but Levy remained skeptical. She says the paper trail doesn't fix the fundamental problem with the software on election machines.

"Because of the way the software works," says Levy, "the computers can be programmed to do one thing, and then tell you it did something else."

Does This Mean the iPod Contest Could Be Rigged?

Thus armed with a heavy dose of skepticism, Nüz pressed on and met BOB KIBRICK, a legislative analyst at VERIFIED VOTING, who was more optimistic about the new technology. "We try to be a source of up-to-date and accurate information on all these different types of voting systems," he said of his employer, "and any state or federal legislation relating to voting systems."

Kibrick says there are advantages and disadvantages to each of the systems at the demonstration, "but all of them are designed to comply in one way or another with the federal mandates that take effect next year requiring that every polling place in America used in a federal election must have at least one voting system that's accessible to people with disabilities," says Kibrick.

Listening devices were available for test usage, as were machines with buttons embossed with Braille. Kibrick had a handout that showed a variety of other interface accessories, including a "sip and puff" device that would allow voters to cast their ballot with only the use of their breath. Other accessories were even more elaborate.

"There are switches that have two different buttons you can push," explains Kibrick, "so someone who doesn't have use of their hands ... if they have use of their neck muscles, they can wear a helmet that has sort of a stick coming out of the end of the helmet. And then by moving their head, they can push these buttons and navigate the ballot."

Suitably impressed by the technology available, Nüz asked Kibrick the million dollar question: Are the systems especially susceptible to fraud?

"Whether it's the latest electronic system or paper and pencil," says Kibrick, "any voting system is subject to fraud."

"To prevent fraud," Kibrick continues, "you need good technology, but you also need good procedures in your polling place. With proper polling place procedures and procedures at the tabulation center, I think all of these machines can be made secure. But you need election officials who are very, very careful in terms of how the machines are programmed, how they're supervised, how they're stored and how they're transported to and from the polling places."

The Big Failsafe

Ironically, Kibrick agrees with Levy's contention that a computer can be programmed to tell you it's doing one thing while actually doing another. According to Kibrick, the way to close the loop of uncertainty is already in place.

"California has for nearly 40 years had what's called a Mandatory Manual Audit Requirement," says Kibrick. "This requirement goes back to 1965 when they first started using computerized punch card voting machines." Kibrick says the law requires that 1 percent of the precincts in each county are picked at random, and all the ballots are counted by hand.

"If there's a problem," says Kibrick, "either due to fraudulent programming, or, as is often more likely the case, somebody just makes an honest mistake, they made a programming boo-boo and it didn't count right, the 1 percent audit will pick that up. That's how you close the audit loop."

Kibrick says the wheels are in motion to make it happen: "A bill was passed last week in the California legislature, SB 370, that essentially clarifies the mandatory audit requirement and spells out explicitly [that] in the county using electronic voting machines, when they do the 1 percent audit, it has to be of the paper record the voter verified. That bill is now on the governor's desk, and hopefully he will sign it."

Meanwhile, County Clerk GAIL PELLERIN has been charged with preparing a recommendation for the COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, and will be relying in part on the public survey results and the input of the advisory committee. Pellerin is less than excited about the task.

"If there's anybody in this county who's reluctant, it's me," says Pellerin. "But federal law is mandating it, voters have said they want something modern by passage of the Voting Modernization Bond Act of 2002 [Proposition 41] that allocated $200 counties to apply for." Pellerin says they will have machines available for sampling at the elections department and a booth at the county fair to solicit more public input as quickly as possible.

"I was hoping for an extension on HAVA," says Pellerin. "Not that I don't want to do these things, but unfortunately the technology isn't moving as fast as these mandates, and I would like to have more time to review these systems‹as of today only two systems are certified by the secretary of state, and those are conditional certifications."

Asked if Nüz won an iPod, Pellerin replied, simply, "No."

More information is available at www.votescount.org. Comments on the new system can be sent to [email protected] For a skeptic's perspective, visit www.votersunite.org.

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From the September 7-14, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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