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State Panel Allows Touchscreen Voting To Continue — With Provisions

Friday April 30, 2004

In a 7-0 vote, a state voting panel decided Wednesday to allow 10 counties, including Alameda, to continue using their touchscreen voting machines provided those counties also supply all their polling places with paper ballots for any voters who choose to use them. 

  The Voting Systems and Procedures Panel, which could have voted to ban the machines altogether, produced the compromise with a string of other security regulations. These included bans on wireless or Internet connections, last-minute software changes and uncertified software or hardware. The panel’s decision also prohibited counties from purchasing new touchscreen machines that don’t produce a paper trail. The voting panel’s recommendations now go before Secretary of State Kevin Shelly who has the final say. 

  According to Elaine Ginnold, the assistant Registrar of Voters in Alameda county, the panel’s decision was viewed as a reasonable compromise. She said the county is glad it can still use its touchscreen machines and is in the process of figuring out how to meet the added requirements. 

  Ginnold said the county already provides paper ballots at polling places but not in the quantity the panel wants. It will not be a problem to have paper ballots printed, she explained but it will cost the county 40 cents apiece. While Ginnold said the county will not print ballots for each of the 700,000 voters in Alameda County, the registrar’s office must now figure out how many paper ballots will actually be needed to have on hand in November. 

  Alameda County already complies with several of the other requests including the ban on wireless and Internet connections. Vote tallies are submitted from accumulation centers, but over secure modem lines that are not connected to the Internet. The county’s machines are not set up for wireless transmission.  

  One of the few election operations in Alameda County the panel’s decision will actually affect is the time it will take to get the vote totals, Ginnold said. Counting paper ballots is much slower and takes place only after the tallies are in from the touchscreen machines. 

  For Judy Bertelsen, a Berkeley resident who has been monitoring the touchscreen debate closely, the state voting panel’s decision is a move in the right direction, but still not enough. Bertelsen said even if the touchscreen problem is alleviated by voting on paper, the current voting system still has several vulnerabilities.  

  “I would feel uncomfortable even if they had gotten rid of all the paperless machines,” she said. 

  In particular, she said, the server used by the country to tally and store the votes sent in from the accumulation sites has been highlighted for security flaws. Bertelsen is also worried about the way the county performs its mandated re-count of a small percentage of the vote to insure accuracy. She said the re-count does not catch several of the ways the votes could be tampered with when using the touchscreen system. 

  Overall, however, Bertelsen said, she thinks Alameda county does a good job and is more worried about the other parts of the country that use touchscreen systems. 

  “There are just so many vulnerabilities,” she said.