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Voting Machine Certification Delays Raise Concerns By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 23, 2005

Delays in the certification of electronic voting machines have suddenly thrown confusion into the fate of Alameda County’s scheduled elections. 

A new state law has mandated that any electronic voting machines used in California elections following the turn of the year must include an electronic “paper trail,” a hard copy in which the vote tally can be checked against the computerized tally automatically given by the voting machine. Since the Diebold electronic voting machines used in the November elections in Alameda County are not equipped with an electronic paper trail function, those machines cannot be used next year. 

Alameda County Supervisors had been scheduled to vote on the purchase of a new set of electronic voting machines with paper trail audit functions in mid-December. But a spokesperson for Board of Supervisors President Keith Carson said that supervisors have yet to receive information on the voting machines from the County Registrar of Voters office, and the date of a supervisors’ vote on the issue will not be held until January at the earliest. 

In addition, the California secretary of state has yet to certify new paper trail electronic voting machines manufactured by Diebold, and Alameda County does not even have the legal option of returning to the use of paper ballots for the June election, a system that was used for a couple of hundred years before the introduction of electronic voting machines. 

“We understand we are in a time crunch,” Carson Chief of Staff Rodney Brooks said. “We haven’t heard from the Secretary of State’s office as to what ‘Plan B’ is.” 

Alameda County Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold said that the county is “in the midst of the procurement process. We’re aiming to do this as fast as we can. I’m hoping that we will have a recommendation available to the Supervisors by the first of the year. But while we are in the middle of the procurement process, we can’t comment on it any further.” 

Shortly after the November election, the Registrar of Voters office held a public demonstration of electronic voting machines manufactured by four separate companies: Diebold, Sequoia, Hart, and Electronic Systems & Software (ES&S). At the time, Ginnold said that a county selection committee would rank the four machines and based upon that evaluation, the Alameda County Purchasing Office would then make a recommendation to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, which was scheduled to vote on the voting machine purchase in mid-December. 

But that procurement process has been held up, in part, by actions of the Secretary of State’s office. 

That office has yet to state certify the paper trail functions of three of the four machines being considered by Alameda County: Diebold, Sequoia, and Hart. Ginnold said that because one of the ES&S machines under consideration works with a paper-based system, no verified audit trail is necessary, and those machines are already state certified. 

In addition, early this week, the office of Secretary of State Bruce McPherson asked for additional federal source code certification for the Diebold machines involving a memory card function that had not been previously reviewed by the federal government. 

“Unresolved significant security concerns exist with respect to the memory card used,” McPherson wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to Diebold. “We require this additional review [by the federal government’s Independent Testing Authorities] before proceeding with further consideration of your application for certification in California.” 

Ginnold said that “theoretically, we could recommend purchase of a machine that has not yet been certified, but that recommendation would be worthless” unless and until such state certification comes through. And she added that if no paper trail audit electronic voting machines receive state certification, the county cannot return to the use of all paper ballots because of federal handicapped access laws. 

“Federal law requires that every polling place must have at least one station that can be used by all handicapped persons without any assistance,” Ginnold said. “In addition, the system in place must allow that person to independently verify their vote, and to be notified if they have made a possible mistake in marking their ballot, such as undervoting or overvoting.” 

Paper ballots, Ginnold noted, do not provide such access, verification, and notification for all classes of handicapped persons. 

“This has put us in a very difficult situation,” Ginnold said. “We’re not getting much guidance from the Secretary of State’s office.” 

Ginnold said that 17 California counties find themselves facing similar electronic voting machine certification problems.