Sunday, April 26, 2009




There's been plenty of news over the last few months about voting machine unreliability, featuring everything from computers not counting some votes at all to willful manipulation of election results.

Many of these headlines have come from outside California, as with the Kentucky indictments of a county judge, a county clerk and three other local officials for changing voting machine counts or instructing others in how to do so, changes that affected election outcomes in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

So much for claims by voting machine companies that their products are virtually tamper-proof.

The good news in California is that since Secretary of State Debra Bowen's 2007 "top to bottom review" of voting machines used here, the vast majority of California votes have been cast on paper, with machines used principally to serve the blind. The bad news, though, is that paper ballots are often counted electronically for the sake of speed. Even though the paper is always there for backup, someone has to suspect a problem before the paper will be hand-counted.

"The decisions I made last year to decertify touch screens eliminated a lot of the possibilities for problems," Bowen said in an interview. "Now we can always go back and look at the paper. We also look at a percentage of ballots in all races, between 10 percent in local races and 2 percent in statewide ones, and if those counts are significantly off the electronic count, we go back to the paper."

Giving voters cause for at least some anxiety over whether their choices will be accurately tallied were some events last year in Humboldt County on the state's North Coast, where vote counting software produced by Premier Election Systems (the former, notorious Diebold Election Systems, which changed its name because of past problems) simply didn't count 197 ballots.

A few weeks after citizens and county officials discovered this, Bowen banned use of Premier's Global Election Management System version 1.18.19, which, she said, contains serious software flaws.

"Clearly, a voting system that can delete ballots without warning and doesn't leave an accurate audit trail should not be used anywhere in California," she said. "I am now putting together a comprehensive plan to examine the audit logs of other voting systems to determine if they suffer similar problems. A reliable audit log is critical to ensuring that every Californian's vote is counted as it was cast."

Of the three counties that used the GEMS system involved, Humboldt will switch to another company, while San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara will let Premiere upgrade their systems to a newer version that is still approved for use in the state.

"The main thing is we have as many checks now as we can practically do," Bowen said. "We never rely just on an electronic system and we pay attention to citizens who suspect problems, as we did in Humboldt."

And then there are problems with the ever-more-popular absentee ballots now used by more than half the voters in some elections and 40 percent overall.

Some absentee ballots are not counted because officials determine signatures on their mail envelopes don't quite match those in registrars' records. Of course, if you registered more than 20 years ago, you may not sign your name in quite the same way any more and your ballot might be tossed.

Some counties now notify voters when their absentee ballots aren't counted, but many do not. Bowen wants everyone to know, so she's sponsoring a bill to require notification, carried by Democratic Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo.

"People should know if their votes aren't counted, and why, so they can fix any problem they may be having," Bowen said. "And if your vote isn't counted for no good reason, there's a process to go to court and fix that, one that does not require a lawyer."

The bottom line: Despite Bowen's efforts, vote-counting reliability is still not perfect in California. But the Kentucky indictments indicate it's better than in a lot of other places. And it's surely a whole lot more reliable than it was before Bowen took over from former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, who for the most part scoffed at the claims of voting machine unreliability and susceptibility to tampering.

Bowen is still far from satisfied, currently sponsoring eight legislative bills to improve things further.

"We want to let emergency personnel deployed to another county to be able to vote provisionally where they are," she said. "We want military and overseas ballots to have a few extra days to arrive after Election Day, because we know the exigencies our people sometimes have to deal with. And we want to allow ballots to be counted if they have some stray mark, like a little doodle, where any mark causes them to be discarded now. The bottom line is we want people to feel their votes are valued and will be counted accurately. That's the way to make sure as many people vote as possible."

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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