County Supes Approve Sequoia Voting Contract

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 09, 2006

A divided Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Thursday to approve a $13.25 million, three-year voting machine contract with Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, ending, for the present, the county’s relationship with controversial Diebold Election Systems. 

Supervisors Alice Lai-Bitker, Gail Steele, and Scott Haggerty voted for the contract; Supervisors President Keith Carson and Supervisor Nate Miley voted against it. 

Following Thursday’s vote, an angry Carson said, “I’ve been consistent [in voting against electronic voting machines]. I haven’t bullshitted people like some people are bullshitting here today.” 

Carson left the supervisors immediately after the vote on the contract to go into closed session, and was not available to comment on who he was directing his “bullshitting” comment to. 

However, they seemed to be a direct reference to Supervisor Gail Steele, who, along with Carson, voted last March against entering contract negotiations with both Diebold and Sequoia. 

While Miley voted to approve the contract negotiations last March, both he and Haggerty indicated that they were doing so only to keep the county’s options open for the November election, and both said they reserved the right to vote for or against the actual proposed contract when it came before them. 

The county expects to be reimbursed by the federal government for $8.7 million of the purchase under the Help America Vote Act, with another $3 million coming from Diebold for a buyback of the electronic voting machines that were purchased from the company and have been in use in Alameda County for the past several elections. 

Berkeley attorney Lowell Finley of Voter Action organization said prior to the supervisors’ vote that if the supervisors approved the Sequoia contract, his organization would file a lawsuit in state court to block their implementation. 

Last March, Voter Action filed a state lawsuit against Alameda County and other California counties to block the implementation of the Diebold electronic touchscreen voting systems. That lawsuit has yet to be heard. 

Shortly before the supervisors vote, Supervisor Steele downplayed the lawsuit threat, saying that “there’s going to be a lawsuit from somebody, no matter what we do.” 

In approving the contract, supervisors upheld the staff recommendation to purchase the Sequoia machines, but ignored a crowd of public speakers asking the county to reject both Sequoia and Diebold. 

Under the new contract, voting in Alameda County for the next three years will be similar to what occurred in last Tuesday’s election, with most voters marking paper ballots to be counted by electronic scanners, and disabled voters having access to electronic touch screen voting machines. 

The difference this November will be that the scanners and voting machines will be provided by Sequoia instead of Diebold, and scanners will be available in each precinct. Under the new system, voters themselves will insert their paper ballots into the scanners. In Tuesday’s election, the ballots were not counted at the precincts, but at a central location in Oakland. 

While the new Sequoia voting system will not be capable of conducting Instant Runoff Voting in time for the November elections, when the City of Berkeley will be electing Councilmembers, School Board members, and the mayor, the contract calls for the machines to be upgraded to IRV capability by the end of next year. 

In addition to the recommended contract, supervisors approved two additions of their own: an amendment by Lai-Bitker that staff conduct its own independent security testing of the Sequoia machines, and an amendment by Haggerty that the county registrar of voters office conduct a “100 percent manual count” of the votes cast on touchscreen voting machines in November’s election to make sure that the electronic count given by the machines is accurate. 

Lai-Bitker said she wanted the independent testing because “even though I have been convinced by county staff that the security for the Sequoia machines is adequate, we need to have our own testing so that the public will be assured that the vote count will be accurate.” 

Immediately before the vote to approve the Sequoia contract, supervisors rejected on a 2-3 vote a substitute motion by Miley to enter contract negotiations with ES&S voting systems’ AutoMARK machines. These machines—which would have been provided primarily for disabled voters—allow voters to use a touchscreen to mark their ballots. 

Unlike the Sequoia and Diebold touchscreen systems, the ES&S AutoMARK machines print out a marked paper ballot when the voter is finished, allowing for a separate counting process from the machine on which the ballots are marked. Miley and Carson voted for the AutoMARK contract, and Haggerty, Lai-Bitker, and Steele voted against it. 

A crowd of voting activists spoke during the public comment period prior to the board vote, with speakers divided between those urging supervisors to adopt the AutoMARK system and those urging a return to hand-counted ballots. The only speakers in favor of either the Sequoia or Diebold contracts were representatives of those two companies. 

The Diebold touchscreen machines became obsolete when the State of California passed a law requiring a verifiable paper trail on all electronic voting machines beginning in January of 2006. The Diebold machines previously used by Alameda County do not possess a verifiable paper trail. 

A Diebold spokesperson said Thursday that there was a possibility that the Alameda County Diebold machines could be modified to include verifiable paper trail capability, but not in time for the November election.