Faced with the impossibility of purchasing electronic touch-screen voting machines that meet federal, state, and county guidelines in time for the June primary election, the Alameda County Registrar’s office has come up with a novel solution: paper ballots.
With the exception of disabled voters who cannot cast a private ballot without the aid of a machine, all votes at Alameda County precincts this June will be cast on paper ballots, with the counting done by electronic scanning at a single location in the Alameda County Administration Building.
According to County Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold, results on election night “will not be quick. It will probably take all night. We are going to need extra staff. We’ve already put out a call to various county offices for volunteers.”
No new purchases will be needed for the June election.
The county already has on hand eight Diebold optical scanners, and will lease the approximately 40 additional scanners needed. Ginnold said that the two disabled-accessible electronic touchscreen voting machines needed for each county precinct will be “borrowed” from San Diego County.
The county operated a paper ballot/electronic scanning system during Tuesday’s Piedmont municipal elections. Because the number of voters in the Piedmont election was so small, the vote counting was able to be done at the precincts themselves.
For voters, the difference between the two systems is that in the Piedmont election, voters physically put their marked paper ballot into the scanner. In the June elections, voters will deposit their marked paper ballots into a locked box, with the scanning itself later done by county election workers.
“The Piedmont election went well,” Ginnold said. “The poll workers all said they liked it.”
A “perfect storm” confluence of deadlines and legal requirements caused the county to have to back away from the touchscreen voting devices it has used since the 2000 elections.
Beginning last January, a new state law required that all electronic voting machines in California include a provision for verifying the electronic vote count by paper. The Diebold machines used by Alameda County did not contain a paper trail, making it impossible to verify whether the machines’ electronic vote count was accurate.
In addition, federal law requires that any precincts operated in a federal election contain voting machines which can be operated without assistance by disabled persons. The law is directed primarily at voters who are blind or do not have the use of their arms, and so cannot mark paper ballots on their own.
Last year, Alameda County began the process of screening new touchscreen voting machines that could meet the new paper trail requirements, but was hampered by the fact that only two such machines—those manufactured by Diebold and ES&S—were only recently certified by California state regulators.
“We need three to four months from the time we decide on the machines to purchase to the time we need them for the election itself,” Ginnold said. “Part of the time needed is for our own acceptance testing. We have to test each individual voting machine that we receive to make sure that it actually works.”
Ginnold said that while continuing the paper ballot/optical scanning system is being considered for the November elections, she added that it is “not really practical to do all of the counting at one central location.”
If such a system is operated in November, the county will obtain enough optical scanners so that the counting can be done at each precinct, with the results then transported to a central collection station in Oakland.