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Mixed Results for Sequoia Voting System

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday November 10, 2006

With Alameda County operating its new Sequoia voting system for the first time in last Tuesday’s general election, the county experienced its share of opening  

day glitches in the midst of  

what appeared to be a generally smooth operation. 

Close to 177,000 voters cast their ballots at Alameda County polls on election day. Another 129,000 chose to vote by absentee ballot. 

Earlier this fall, during a media tour of the county’s election headquarters, Acting Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Mac-donald told reporters that the Sequoia optical scanning system would be operated under the conditions of a secret ballot, with poll workers having no opportunity to view how a voter’s individual ballot had been cast. 

Beginning at Tuesday’s election, Alameda County purchased optical scanners for each of the county’s 1,219 precincts. 

According to Macdonald, voters were supposed to be given their ballots inside a manila folder and that the voters themselves would be given the opportunity to feed the ballots into the scanners once the ballots had been marked. If assistance was needed from the poll workers to put the ballot into the scanner, Macdon-ald said, the ballot itself would be hidden from the poll worker’s view within the manila folder, making it impossible for the poll worker to see how the ballot had been marked. 

A survey of voting by Daily Planet workers at Berkeley precincts during Tuesday’s election, however, showed that procedure was not universally followed. 

At the Frances Albrier Com-munity Center in San Pablo Park, reporter Judith Scherr reported that after she had voted, the poll worker requested the voter’s two ballots (one for candidates, one for ballot measures). 

The poll worker tore off the receipts from the two ballots, gave them to Scherr, and then the poll worker fed the ballots into the scanner. Scherr said that she was not told that she had the right to feed the ballots into the scanner herself. Scherr said she was not provided with a folder to hide her ballot. 

That was the same case as reported by managing editor Michael Howerton at Berkeley Fire Station No. 3 on Russell Street, with the poll worker taking the unhidden ballot from the voter and feeding it into the scanner. 

But Planet executive editor Becky O’Malley said that at the same precinct, the worker took her ballot and tore off the receipts “while making a big show of not looking at the ballot itself” and then gave the ballot back to O’Malley to feed into the scanner. 

And at the Prudential California Realty on Tunnel Road, arts and calendar editor Anne Wagley said that the voting procedure worked as Macdonald had described it, with Wagley tearing off the receipts and feeding the ballots into the scanner herself “while the poll worker stood away.” 

None of the Planet staff reported that the poll workers involved appeared to be attempting to read their ballots. 

Spot checks of Berkeley precincts during Tuesday’s elections showed similar discrepancies in how secret the voters ballots were maintained. 

At the Black Repertory Theater on Adeline Street, which housed ballots for two precincts, voters at one polling place were allowed to drop in their ballots without assistance, while workers at the second polling place were taking the ballots from the voters and doing the depositing themselves. 

At the Veterans Building on Center Street, which also housed two precincts, voters were allowed to cast their own ballots in both precincts, but at one ballot box, the worker stood and watched the voter put the ballot in, the ballot and its markings easily visible. 

At Washington School and both of Longfellow School’s precincts, voters cast their own ballots without observation by poll workers. At the Berkeley Unified School District administrative headquarters in the old City Hall, the poll worker did the scanning for the voter, but did it from a ballot kept inside the folder, so that the votes were not visible. 

During the tallying of the ballots themselves at Alameda County election headquarters at the Registrar of Voters office in the basement of the county courthouse Tuesday night, however, the operation was managed with military precision and attention to detail. 

At the end of the day’s voting, poll workers placed into red canvas bags all counted ballots cast at their polls, the electronic tally voting cards from the scanners and electronic touchscreen machines, the uncounted absentee ballots dropped off at the polling place that day, and the precinct roster sheets showing which voters had signed in and voted. 

The precinct bags were then driven to 27 relay stations set up around the county where workers checked to see if all of the necessary information was present. From there, the collected precinct bags were driven to the courthouse in Oakland. To keep track of what had come in, workers scanned in the barcodes on the roster sheets before they were deposited in plastic bins. The electronic tally cards were scanned twice—once when they first came out of the red bags, and then again after the vote tallies had been downloaded into the registrar’s main computer. 

At the height of the counting near midnight some 35 workers were busy at various vote counting tasks in the courthouse basement, not enough to keep the red canvas bags from backing up in double lines on a table while cars continued to roll in with more bags. 

Even with the checking at the relay stations that was supposed to ensure that all of the items were in the bags, the checkoff system at the courthouse identified several precincts where either electronic tally cards or roster sheets had not been included with the ballots, and during the night’s tally, phone calls went out from the courthouse to several county locations to retrieve them. 

Acting Registrar MacDonald said that all of the electronic tally cards, physical ballots, and roster sheets would be kept in the county’s secured warehouse for 22 months following Tuesday’s election. 

Everybody was not satisfied with the conduct of the courthouse basement counting. 

Two computer experts appointed by the Democratic Central Committee of Alameda County to monitor the voting process—Jerry Berkman and Jim Soper—as well as a representative of the Wellstone Democratic Club Voting Rights Task Force—Donald Goldmacher, Wellstone—complained that they were not allowed to enter the room where county employees were actually downloading the vote tallies from the electronic cards into the county’s main computer. While the computer tally room was visible through a wall of windows, the computers themselves were turned away from the windows, so that the computer screens were not visible to outside observers. 

Soper said that California law mandated that all aspects of the counting process be visible to observers, and that the registrar’s decision to bar observers from the counting room was a violation of the law. “We want full transparency in the vote-counting process,” Soper said. “That’s the cornerstone of democracy.” 

Soper, Goldmacher, and Berkman had a lively discussion at some length with ROV spokesperson Guy Ashley, asking for the right to enter the counting room. Ashley at one point said that the issue had been discussed by telephone with Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, noting that McPherson had said that the setup of the counting room was at the discretion of local officials. The Secretary of State “didn’t say he had a problem with keeping observers out the counting room,” Ashley said. “Don’t you think he would have said something if he thought this was a violation of the law?” 

Soper said that voting activists are considering filing legal action against the county to attempt to open up all aspects of the counting process in future Alameda County elections.