A state's troubled foray into electronic voting

By jettisoning its system because of reliability worries, California causes other states to reexamine voting methods.

Three and a half years after Election 2000's fiasco of hanging, pregnant, and dimpled chads - and just six months until election 2004 - the nation is hitting another speed bump on the road to election voting reform.

The decision by California late last week to withdraw from one of the nation's biggest moves into electronic voting is likely to reverberate across the country as other states consider alternative balloting systems.

Nationwide, some 32 million registered voters are still expected to use punch cards to vote this November. But about 50 million others in 25 states were scheduled to use some version of electronic voting. As they make the transition, states are looking at what methods seem relatively voter-friendly and tamperproof.

The abrupt retreat by California, traditionally a leader in voting reform, from one type of Digital Age democracy because of reliability concerns will certainly have election officials - and voters - across the country rethinking what machines to put in booths.

"For a state as significant and groundbreaking as California is in the nation's push for election reform to be making a sweeping decision like this will have major consequences nationally," says Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that analyses election reform issues. "Already, states which have been looking seriously at moving forward quickly in this area are ... making sure they don't act hastily."

The California move, prompted by concerns over the reliability of touch-screen systems, but by allegegations procedural infractions by machine vendors, comes as the newly created US Elections Assistance Commission holds public hearings on electronic voting Wednesday in Washington.

The California move, an announcement by California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, was prompted by several problems in the March primary:

• Malfunctions in one county led 55 percent of polling places there to open late and prevent unknown numbers of voters from casting ballots.

• In another county, thousands of voters were issued wrong ballots on voting machines made by a different vendor, leading to ineligible votes being cast in some races and preventing votes in other races.

• Allegations that Diebold, a leading touch-screen manufacturer, misled the state by saying its equipment was nearing mandated federal approval for its system.

All three concerns are raising caution flags across the country, according to several national observers. "California's decision will reverberate loudly to legislatures in states across the country who are moving to upgrade their voting equipment in the next two years," says Tim Storey, political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It goes to the fundamental issue that election reform in this country has been obsessed with since 2000."

Many observers are not yet ready to comment on the accusations that Diebold misled the state about its certification. (Diebold has rejected the charge). But several say the case will heighten scrutiny and slow the process by which states finally adopt and use such systems.

"This California decision causes the average voter everywhere to wonder if they can trust their elections using electronic ballots wherever they are," says DeForest Soaries, one of four members for the Elections Assistance Commission, which is holding the hearings beginning Wednesday. The commission was created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. One of the law's goals has been to eliminate the problems with punch-card voting systems that were spotlighted in Florida, 2000.

"The development is unfortunate in one sense, but I commend the secretary of state for having the courage to really speak his mind," says Mr. Soaries. "This will really up the ante for us in getting to the bottom of both reliability of these machines as well as state and federal procedures for certifying them."

But some states are pushing forward even as naysayers raise concerns over accuracy and security. In the recent Michigan primary, for instance, tens of thousands of voters successfully cast their ballots online. And Ohio has recently committed $130 million for a touch-screen system.

"We don't anticipate the California decision to impact us here because we are using different machines," says Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State. Ohio put several machine vendors through stringent security tests which they say uncovered 57 concerns that needed to be corrected before the machines could be deployed. Companies say the changes have been made and are awaiting national and state recertification.

Georgia currently uses electronic voting across the state, and has no plans to change since the Diebold model in use there is different from California's.

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