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SupervisorsApproveVoting Machine Negotiations, By: J. Douglas Allen Taylor

Friday March 17, 2006

Caught between a steady chorus of warnings by local voting rights activists and a looming deadline to begin preparations for the November elections, Alameda County Supervisors voted narrowly this week to begin negotiations with two companies for the poss ible purchase of paper-verified electronic voting machines. But even supervisors who supported the negotiations cautioned that the vote does not necessarily mean that new electronic voting machines will actually be bought. 

Acting Alameda County Registra r of Voters Elaine Ginnold told supervisors that nothing in the contract negotiations would prevent the county from adopting a paper ballot system for the November election similar to the one that will be used for the June election, if the supervisors lat e r choose to go that route. 

Berkeley Peace and Justice Commissioner Phoebe Anne Thomas Sorgen, one of several county residents who urged supervisors to abandon electronic voting machines during two days of presentations at the county administration buil ding, said following the vote that “we’re disappointed. We are going to have to regroup and decide what to do next.” 

Thomas Sorgen predicted that activists would return to the supervisors meeting en masse when the report on the contract negotiations come s back. 

Supervisors Nate Miley and Scott Haggerty supported the $17 million contract negotiations with voting machine manufacturers Diebold Election Systems of Texas and Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland. They were joined by Alice Lai-Bitker, who appeare d to waver over her vote until the last minute. Board president Keith Carson and Supervisor Gale Steele opposed moving forward with negotiations. 

Diebold and Sequoia were the top two of four companies vying to supply voting machines for Alameda County for the general election in November. 

Saying that she supported the negotiations because the decision is “not binding us to the purchase,” Lai-Bitker said that “if we kill this [voting machine purchase] process, we could jeopardize the November elections. K illing this resolution today would mean that the Registrar of Voters could not move forward with providing options.” 

Carson, who said “I’ve been on record not in favor of Diebold,” pushed for supervisors to approve some form of paper balloting for the No vember election, saying that “while paper ballots might take a little longer to count, it’s a system that worked well recently in Iraq, and in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was elected. And people have confidence in the result.” Carson added that “thi s is not like buying a new fleet of vehicles for the county. This is fundamental to the rights of Alameda County citizens.” 

Electronic voting machines will not be an option in the June primary. 

Alameda County residents used a punch-card system for votin g for 30 years until 2000. But after the 2000 Presidential election debacle in Florida, in which punch-cards played a major part, the California Secretary of State outlawed the systems, and Alameda County moved to an electronic touchscreen voting system o perated by Diebold. 

The Diebold machines became obsolete in January of this year when a new state law went into effect, requiring a verifiable paper audit trail on electronic voting machines. 

With the old electronic voting machines, counting was done el ectronically, with neither the voter nor public officials having any way to independently verify whether the voter’s ballot was properly counted and the entire tally was correctly done. 

With the machines now required under the new California law, the vot er can compare a paper printout with the votes registered on the screen, and public officials can use the paper printouts as a backup to make sure that the electronic count was correct. 

The voting system is further complicated by the fact that f ederal la w, under the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), now requires that voting precincts contain at least one method of allowing disabled voters to vote in secret, without assistance. 

Alameda County began the process last year of soliciting proposals from manu facturers for paper trail electronic machines, but the process broke down when companies could not get early state and federal certification for those machines. When time ran out to purchase the new electronic machines in time for the June prim ary, acting Alameda County Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold proposed using paper ballots for those elections, with counting done by scanning machines at a central location in Oakland. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, county supervisors approved Ginnold’s proposal for a pape r ballot June primary with little debate. 

But discussion was extensive over the proposal to restart the procedure to enter purchase negotiations for electronic voting machines for the November election, now that both Diebold and Sequoia have both receive d state and federal approval for their paper trail machines. 

Urging supervisors to abandon electronic voting altogether, John Bass of Oakland told supervisors that “the heart of the issue is we want our vote to count. With the present electr onic voting m achines, we do not know if our vote is counted correctly. If the person who got the most votes is not the person who is put in office, then we do not live in a democracy.” 

And Voting Rights Task Force co-chair Judy Bertelsen, a frequent con tributor to th e Daily Planet commentary section, called the voting machines being considered “hackable and shot through with security problems.” 

Supervisor Steele, who requested a two minute break “to clear my head” following the debate and before the v ote—a break tha t eventually stretched to a half an hour—said that she “came here thinking I was going to do one thing, but I changed my mind. I’m continually bothered by the erosion of confidence in our electoral system, whether it’s real or only perception. We need mor e security on these systems.” 

Haggerty said he was “impressed” by the presentation of voting machine opponents, telling them that “if your goal was to leave doubt in my mind, you’ve been successful.” But Haggerty added that “if we don’t start the process, we won’t have a process,” and he and Miley and Lai-Bitker indicated that they were swayed by the timetable presented by acting Registrar of Voters Ginnold, who said that failure to move forward at Tuesday’s meeting would make it difficu lt to get ready f or the November vote and would limit the county’s flexibility for the adoption of a permanent voting system in 2007 and beyond. Ginnold said that six weeks were needed to complete the negotiations with the two vendors, with another three to four months ne eded for the winning vendor to prepare equipment and deliver it to Alameda County. “We need to physically have the voting machines in our possession in July in order to prepare the ballots beginning in August,” Ginnold said.›µ?