Legislature weighs plans to modernize ballot box

By Noam Levey
Published September 11, 2001. Copyright, San Jose Mercury News.

SACRAMENTO -- Nearly a year after the presidential election was paralyzed by a dispute over Florida's ballots, California is poised to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid becoming the next place where antiquated voting machines wreak havoc with an election.

The huge expenditure would deliver the most comprehensive voting modernization in the state's history and would push California elections into the high-tech era.

Legislative leaders are pushing a bond measure that, if approved by the Legislature this week and passed by voters next March, would raise $300 million to allow counties such as Santa Clara, Alameda and Los Angeles to replace their aging punch-card machines with newer technology. Already approved by the Assembly, the measure may be taken up by the Senate as soon as today.

But as they work to rid the state of the infamous punch-card ballots that generated so much controversy, state leaders are also struggling to allay fears that computerized voting may compromise security and reliability by doing away with tangible records of elections.

The drive to update the state's voting machines comes on the heels of a presidential election that featured the spectacle of Florida election officials struggling for weeks to decipher thousands of poorly marked punch-card ballots.

California was spared that ordeal, but millions of voters in the Golden State cast their ballots last November on the same kinds of machines as voters in Palm Beach County and other contested Florida counties. Thirty-four of California's 58 counties, including the five largest, still use punch-card technology dating back nearly 40 years.

Numerous studies have shown that these systems are less reliable than more up-to-date voting systems. Earlier this year, a report prepared for the Legislature found that nine of the 10 California counties with the highest rate of ballots that could not be counted in the 2000 presidential election had used punch-card systems.

Nationwide movement

Around the country, many states and municipalities are weighing plans to update their voting technology. Florida adopted a sweeping reform in May, estimated to cost $32 million, that will help counties replace punch cards with modern voting equipment.

"The most important part of democracy is having every vote count. To not do anything in California would be irresponsible,'' said Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley, a San Francisco Democrat who is championing the bond measure with Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a San Fernando Valley Democrat.

Under the current proposal, counties could choose any new technology except punch-card machines. The plan's architects say the money, plus a $100 million match from counties, should be enough for every county to upgrade.

Many elections officials are eyeing computerized voting, which has surged in popularity nationwide since the Florida debacle. But how these machines should record and store results remains an unanswered and potentially contentious question.

"Everyone recognizes that punch cards are not the optimal voting system. But in moving from paper to electronic voting, we risk losing transparency,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "We need to think about not just how we count votes, but also how we store records, all the while preserving voters' anonymity.''

Alexander is among several voting rights advocates and state leaders urging caution before California leaps into a massive program to upgrade voting systems. Alexander is particularly concerned that there hasn't been enough public debate about the new technologies and that no money is being set aside to encourage greater voter participation.

The most popular electronic voting systems on the market involve touch screens, which allow voters to make their choices on electronic monitors by simply touching the name of the candidates they wish to select.

The machines prevent voters from voting twice in a race, a problem that disqualifies many ballots under older technologies. And the machines can be programmed to ask voters to verify their choices to ensure they don't make errors.

"It's extremely easy to use and maintain,'' said Mischelle Townsend, the registrar of voters in Riverside County, the only county in California that makes widespread use of computerized voting.

Last year, Riverside County spent nearly $14 million to buy 4,250 computerized voting machines for all the county's polling places.

The machines can be programmed to offer different ballots, depending on a voter's precinct and language, eliminating the need to print out ballots and instructions in different languages, which elections officials say creates a blizzard of paper.

Townsend estimates that the electronic system saves her county $600,000 in paper every year. And, she says, it encourages more people to vote by providing the opportunity to vote in places like shopping malls, movie theaters and grocery stores.

County elections officials around the state are scrambling to find money to follow Riverside County's lead.

"People could vote easily and at any precinct. It would be much more accessible for voters,'' said Evonne Zamora, the acting registrar of voters in Santa Clara County, which had to cut back its electronic voting pilot program this year due to a tight budget.

Keeping the paper trail

Before counties such as Santa Clara can spend millions of state dollars to upgrade computerized systems, however, state leaders must resolve how to provide the kind of "paper trail'' that will ensure votes are not lost in an electronic glitch.

Several Republican lawmakers have said they will not support putting the bond measure on the ballot -- a move that requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature and, thus, some GOP support -- unless the state requires counties to create a paper record of votes.

"If public funds are going to be spent, we need to assure that in the event of an election contest, we are not doing the equivalent of holding up cards to the light to determine voter intent,'' said Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, a Bakersfield Republican who is vice chairman of the lower house's election committee.

It is unclear what form that paper trail would take. Most computerized machines do not print a paper record of individual ballots, although many election officials say they don't think such a record is necessary because the systems already have backups -- results are stored on the machines and also on cartridges that are used to tally results. Printing receipts, election officials say, might only lead to more glitches.

Shelley and Hertzberg are proposing that electronic voting machines be required to print a record of each voter's selections and store those paper records in a ballot box for use in case of a recount.

"That would provide a comfort level,'' Shelley said, "and that's important.''

© 2001 Mercury Center.

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