Supervisors to Vote on Voting Machine Contract

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 02, 2006

With Alameda County Supervisors coming down to the wire on a decision for the purchase of a permanent new voting system, local voting activists are hoping for what they call an “interim solution” that will not commit the county past the November elections. 

“We want them to adopt a minimalist approach” to the current schedule of purchases said Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club Voting Rights Task Force member Michele Gabriel in a telephone interview. 

“We won’t have another major election for another two years,” she said. “There could be a change in the California Secretary of State after the November elections, which means there could be a complete change in which voting machines receive state certification, and which ones don’t. In addition, Alameda County doesn’t have a permanent Registrar of Voters, and it would seem that the new ROV should be in place before the county makes a decision on a permanent voting system.” 

County supervisors are scheduled to vote at a special Thursday morning meeting on June 8 at 11 a.m. between $17 million contract proposals for voting machine purchases from Diebold Election Systems of Texas and Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland. 

The contract negotiations were authorized on a 3-2 vote by superivisors last March, but even supervisors who voted for the negotiations at the time cautioned that they did so in large part to move the contract proposal forward, and left room to change their minds when the time came for the vote on the actual contract. 

Under the original proposal, Alameda County would operate what they are calling a “blended” voting system, with most voters marking paper ballots that would be counted on optical scanners at each precinct. Each precinct would also have an electronic touchscreen voting machine available for any voter who wished to use them, an option which is aimed primarily at disabled voters. 

The proposed contracts call for the purchase of the optical scanners and electronic touchscreen voting machines from either Diebold or Sequoia in time for implementation during the November general election and beyond. 

Alameda County will operate a similar voting system for next Tuesday’s election, with the exception that all of the paper ballot voting will be counted by the county’s current handful of scanning machines at a central location in Oakland, and electronic touchscreen voting will be done at each precinct on machines leased for the June election only from San Diego County. 

Local voting activists are hoping that supervisors reject the Diebold and Sequoia bids outright. 

Diebold has achieved notoriety in recent years on charges that it has altered election outcomes to favor Republican candidates, and for that reason “my guess is that the county staff will recommend Sequoia,” said Berkeley Peace and Justice Commissioner Phoebe Anne Thomas Sorgen. But Sorgen said that “Sequoia is just as bad” as Diebold, with the problem being that both systems operate “hackable machines.” 

Both Sorgen, Gabriel, and Wellstone Voting Task Force member Dan Ashby said that rather than a purchase of either Diebold or Sequoia machines, Supervisors should forego purchase of scanning machines for the present, continuing the central scan of the paper ballots with the scanners already owned by the county. 

For the disabled voters, all of them recommended the purchase of Automark Touchscreen voting machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software (ES&S), one of the four companies which submitted a bid to Alameda County. 

Sorgen said that the Automark system allows touchscreen voting, but produces a paper ballot rather than tabulating the count electronically, thus minimizing the vulnerability of the system to hacking. In addition, Sorgen said that Automark “allows for ranked choice voting, which makes it compatible with Instant Runoff Voting, which is a concern for many Alameda County voters.” 

She also said that another advantage of Automark was that “it is already certified by the Secretary of State,” so it could be implemented immediately by the county. 

Ashby said that in addition to optical scanning, supervisors “could also consider returning to a hand-counted paper ballot system. There would be challenges, of course, but those could be overcome.” 

That was an option also suggested by Board of Supervisors President Keith Carson at the March 17 contract negotiation vote, stating 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 was one of the two supervisors voting against going forward with the contract negotiations with Diebold and Sequoia.