What is the definition of a “test”?
Alameda County voting activists put that issue to its own test last week at the regular meeting of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, telling supervisors that the vulnerability assessment produced on the new Sequoia Voting Systems earlier this month was not the “test” called for in the supervisors’ resolution authorizing the Sequoia contract last June.
Only one supervisor—Board President Keith Carson—agreed with them, however, with the remaining four supervisors voting that the Sequoia test was adequate to meet their security concerns.
Berkeley Peace and Justice Commissioner and voting rights activist Phoebe Anne Thomas Sorgen said that activists were “disappointed” by the decision, but Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker said that “the consultants did what we asked them to do” and says that the Alameda County Registrar of Voters has established an “excellent protocol” for establishing the safety of the November vote.
The non-profit Voter Action organization has already filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court in Oakland against the county and the registrar of voters office, claiming that independent security testing had not been done on the new Sequoia voting machines as required by county supervisors.
Last June, supervisors approved a $13 million contract with Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems to provide scanners and touchscreen voting machines for Alameda County elections.
Until last June’s primary, elections in Alameda County had been conducted for several years on Diebold touchscreen voting machines. Changes in state law and changes in community attitudes caused Alameda County to adopt a different system this year, with most voters beginning in November voting on paper ballots, with computerized touchscreen voting machines available at each voting place for disabled individuals who need to use them and any other voters who wish to use them.
The Alameda County Registrar of Voters office is estimating that the cost to the county for the new system will end up being virtually nothing, between reimbursements from the federal government and selling back the Diebold machines—which cannot be used in California because of the state’s paper audit requirements but can still be used in several other states.
Under the new system, voters using paper ballots at the polling place will be able to feed their paper ballot themselves into a scanning machine on-site, which will count the votes. At the end of the voting day, counters holding the vote totals from each precinct will be brought to county election headquarters in Oakland to be totaled by computer.
Last June, at the insistence of local voting activists, supervisors approved the Sequoia contract only with the provision that county staff would “conduct independent security vulnerability testing prior to paying for the electronic voting system.”
“I think that the voting advocates wanted us to open up the machines and see what was in there,” Supervisor Lai-Bitker said in a telephone interview this week.
But Lai-Bitker said that “what we wanted was to ensure that there could be no manipulation of the vote or fraudulent vote as we have seen with the use of electronic voting machines in other states. I believe that with the protocols established, it is very unlikely that someone could open these machines and mess up the vote.”
Lai-Bitker said the Pacific Design Engineering assessment was ‘what I had in my mind” when she voted last June to require testing on the system.
Lai-Bitker represents the cities of Alameda, San Leandro, and a portion of Oakland on the Board of Supervisors.
But voting activist Sorgen called the Pacific Design Engineering report “a whitewash” and only an assessment of Sequoia and Alameda County’s security provisions, rather than an independent test of the machines themselves.
“Last June, we succeeded in having them include security and hack-testing, and that’s not what was ultimately done” by the consultants. The problem, Sorgen said, remains with the electronic touchscreen voting machines which are part of the system, which are required by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for the use of disabled persons, and which Sorgen calls “hackable.”
“There will only be one hackable machine per precinct,” she said, “but that could be enough to throw an election. We are all in favor of giving disabled persons private access to the vote, but that shouldn’t be on a machine that is hackable.”
Sorgen said that voting activists in the county will be urging citizens not to use the touchscreen machines “unless they have to for disability reasons.”
In its Oct. 4 report, Pleasanton-based Pacific Design Engineering said that “no practical, realizable vulnerabilities were uncovered” during its assessment of the Sequoia voting system, and concluded that the system “along with the processes and countermeasures planned by Alameda County for Election Day can be considered secure.”