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Voting Technology

California Secretary of State’s Voting Systems and Procedures Panel Meeting

April 21-22, 2004, Sacramento, California

Testimony of Kim Alexander, President
California Voter Foundation

Good morning, I am Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization advancing the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process, online at

It is the job of this panel to decide for the State of California which voting systems are acceptable or unacceptable for use in our state. Today I am here to urge you to decertify paperless, computerized voting systems and prevent the use of these systems in California this November, to recommend that counties use paper ballots in polling places, and ensure that the voters of our state will vote with confidence.

I. Decertify paperless, computerized voting systems

There are three obvious reasons why we should put the e-voting machines away and prohibit use of such systems until they are safe to use.

One reason is because there were widespread technical problems with e-voting systems in the March election which led to voter disenfranchisement and undermined voter confidence in the accuracy of election results.

While the voting problems in Orange, Alameda and San Diego counties garnered the most attention in the weeks following the election, many other counties that use computerized voting systems also had their share of problems.

Three counties that use touchscreens in polling places have also encountered recent problems getting their paper absentee ballots correctly counted.

We know about these miscounts because the counties were able to compare the paper absentee ballots to the software-counted results. When the numbers didn’t add up, the counties were able to troubleshoot, diagnose and correct the vote counting problems.

This leads to the second reason we should decertify paperless electronic voting systems: they produce election results that cannot be verified. Even if everything appears to go perfectly, we still can’t verify the results.

Officials from Alameda, San Diego and Napa were quick to assure the public that while they experienced vote counting problems with their paper absentee ballots, the vote count for their electronic ballots was accurate. But the truth is they really can’t be sure and have no way to prove it, because they have no paper record of electronic ballots that they can use to verify the accuracy of the software-counted electronic votes.

Registrars say “no voting system is perfect”. But some are more imperfect than others. Paper based systems produce results that can be verified. E-voting systems produce results that cannot be verified, and this is simply unacceptable.

A walk through the life of an electronic ballot shows just how perfectly everything must work in a typical computerized voting system for the final results to be accurate.

First, the voter casts a ballot on a computerized voting machine, which must correctly record and store that electronic ballot. All the machines are connected together at the end of the voting day and the ballots are transferred into one machine, where they are stored onto a cartridge. Pollworkers return the cartridges to a vote collection center where they are downloaded. Next the electronic ballots are transferred to the central counting center at the county election office, where they are tabulated using vote counting software. The tabulated data is then used to generate reports of election results.

Each of these steps must be glitch-free and perfectly programmed. Each step of the way every electronic ballot must be protected. If an electronic ballot is lost or altered along the way it would be difficult to detect and impossible to determine what the correct ballot should be.

Whether the voting system errors that have already occurred are accidental problems or intentional efforts to tamper with election results is unknown. What we do know is that technical problems are inevitable regardless of what voting system is used. When errors occur with paper -based optical scan systems, we manage to recover from them. When they occur with paperless, electronic ballots we have no way to verify that the final results are accurate, which erodes public confidence in the legitimacy of our elected representatives.

The public has good reason to question the reliability of our voting systems given the fact that it’s become painfully apparent that government at all levels has done a poor job regulating voting systems. Diebold essentially beta-tested its new smart card encoder on San Diego and Alameda counties, and the state, federal and local governments let them. Potentially thousands of California voters were disenfranchised because of it.

Four counties have purchased and used voting machines that lack federal approval. They purchased these machines before they were even certified by the state. Seventeen counties were found to be using uncertified software or hardware in a recent survey by the Secretary of State. None of our systems are tested to meet the 2002 federal voting system standards; it is the 1990 standards to which our computerized systems were tested. And there is no sign that the federal government has any intention of funding NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the only federal agency that could possibly implement meaningful voting system standards and in fact was charged to do so under the Help America Vote Act.

This panel approved electronic provisional voting systems. It certified the TSX even though the machine lacked federal approval. It approved use of the new Diebold smart card devices knowing it had gone through limited testing. At the county level, registrars have taken delivery of equipment they know is not certified. As Conny McCormack, Los Angeles County Registrar told the Los Angeles Times last November:

“All of us have made changes to our software - even major changes - and none of us have gone back to the secretary of state. But it was no secret we’ve been doing this all along.”

It’s bad enough that we are using any software to tabulate ballots given how inadequate state, federal and local oversight of our voting systems is. But the idea of allowing paperless, electronic voting systems which produce results that cannot be verified given the weak regulatory oversight that exists today is irresponsible and dangerous.

II. Alternatives to DREs

If the Secretary of State or the California Legislature act to prohibit paperless electronic voting in California this November, the 14 counties that purchased these systems have other alternatives. All of these counties purchased and are using paper-based optical scan systems to facilitate absentee voting. Expanding the use of these voting systems is simply a matter of printing more ballots. There is no additional equipment that needs to be purchased and fielded in polling places for an optical scan system -- all you need are paper ballots.

In fact, four of the 14 DRE counties -- Orange, San Bernardino, San Joaquin and Napa -- used their paper optical scan systems in polling places during last October’s recall election because their electronic systems weren’t ready for deployment. We didn’t hear about major catastrophes or Florida-style meltdowns following that election. I am quite confident that all the counties that are using DREs are perfectly capable of deploying paper ballots in their polling places instead this Fall.

It also may be possible to retrofit some of the existing touchscreens with a paper audit trail feature and field them in a limited number of secure, well-staffed locations this Fall to provide disabled voters access to these systems. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has already introduced draft standards for an accessible voter verified paper trails. Two vendors -- Avante and Accupoll -- have already gained federal approval for touchscreen systems that provide a voter verified paper trail. Sequoia’s new paper trail feature is currently under review by federal testing authorities. ES&S recently obtained the rights to market a voting device that enables sight-impaired voters to cast a secret ballot on a paper-based, optical scan system.

III. Ensure Voter Confidence

Reliable election results are the heart of legitimate government. A government is only legitimate when it has won the consent of the governed. That consent can only be won when elections are conducted not in secret, but in plain sight.

The California Voter Foundation wants secure and verifiable voting systems because we want people to believe their votes count, that voting matters, and to vote with confidence. Voting machines without paper trails undermine the legitimacy of elections, which in turn undermines the legitimacy of those who are elected to govern us.

Some say we can’t afford to change our systems this late in the process. I ask, how can we afford not to? Which is the greater risk: counties having to spend a few extra hours scanning paper ballots on election night; or the prospect of thousands of California voters again being disenfranchised? Ask Alameda, San Diego and Orange counties what they have spent in staff time investigating the last election problems, trying to determine what went wrong. It costs a lot less to maintain confidence in elections than it does to restore it.

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This page was first published on April 21, 2004 | Last updated on January 27, 2006
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