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County officials fear new voting standards will be hard to meet

Saturday, August 4, 2007

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(08-04) 19:07 PDT SACRAMENTO, (AP) --

A state directive requiring increased security on voting systems could cost counties millions of dollars, lead to long lines at the polls and delay California's results in next year's presidential primary, local election officials warned Saturday.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen informed counties late Friday night that they no longer would be allowed to use some voting systems made by companies that supply all but a handful of California's 58 counties. Bowen decertified the machines for use but said they could regain certification if the companies could prove they had improved security features.

In many counties, that means voters may have to be given paper ballots for the Feb. 5 presidential primary, like those absentee voters already use.

"I'm still a little shell-shocked," Butte County Registrar Candace Grubbs said. "Election officials in the state of California have worked long and hard to ensure elections come off well, and this is how we are treated?"

The rural, north Central Valley county uses touchscreen machines at all its precincts, so Grubbs said her office would have to buy ballot boxes and voting booths, rewrite ballots and retrain election officials.

"I think it's going to be a tumultuous process at the polls," said Riverside County Clerk Barbara Dunmore.

In Riverside and at least 19 other counties, election officials will have six months to replace electronic voting machines if they cannot meet the new standards set out by the secretary of state.

The decision followed an eight-week security review of California's voting systems that revealed flaws in some electronic machines.

University of California computer experts found that voting machines sold by three companies — Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems — were vulnerable to hackers and that voting results could be altered.

Bowen decertified machines made by Diebold and Sequoia but said they could regain certification if they meet several new conditions. She also added security restrictions on machines made by Hart InterCivic.

The companies make a variety of machines, each of which will be subject to a different recertification process under the complex set of rules Bowen issued Friday.

Machines made by a fourth company, Elections Systems & Software, also were decertified because the company was late in providing information the secretary of state needed for its so-called top-to-bottom review.

Bowen said she is examining that company separately, a process that could have wide-ranging implications on Election Day. Elections Systems & Software supplies the voting equipment for Los Angeles County, the state's most populous.

Bowen withdrew certification for the county's InkaVote system while she does her own review. Elections Systems & Software defended its machines Saturday.

"The equipment that we provide to jurisdictions is secure, it's accurate, and it allows voters to have a very positive voting experience," company spokesman Ken Fields said.

Bowen, a Democratic former state senator, won election last year with the support of electronic-voting skeptics and pledged during her campaign to make sure the state's voting systems were reliable.

In her announcement late Friday, she said voting machines that failed security checks had not been properly reviewed or tested by the federal government.

"I think voters and counties are the victims of a federal certification process that hasn't done an adequate job of ensuring that the systems made available to them are secure, accurate, reliable and accessible," Bowen told reporters during a news conference that started shortly before midnight Friday.

Yolo County Registrar of Voters Freddie Oakley was among the few county elections officials who praised Bowen's review on Saturday. She said it provided much-needed scrutiny for a system susceptible to manipulation.

"We are talking about this fundamental factor in Democracy, and we need to be very serious about it," Oakley said. "Voters are increasingly worried about the quality of the systems that are being used."

Many registrars have been angered by what they described as a unilateral review process that failed to take into account their rigorous training and security procedures.

Companies complained that the review was performed under conditions that don't exist in the real world, with the university hackers having full access to machines' manuals and complex computer codes.

In a statement issued Saturday, Sequoia said the security of electronic voting systems had never been successfully breached during an election.

"That same statement cannot be made about lever machines and paper-based voting systems throughout our nation's history," the company said.

Counties throughout California rushed to buy electronic voting machines to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The law was passed to address some of the voting problems that arose during the 2000 presidential contest, such as Florida's infamous hanging chads.

Many California registrars now say that money seems like a wasted investment.

Riverside County, for example, has spent $650 million equipping its polling stations with high-tech machines that could be obsolete or need software or hardware modifications that state officials say will make them more reliable.

Included in Bowen's ruling is a condition that just one Diebold or Sequoia electronic machine will be allowed per precinct, to assist disabled voters. The two company's optical scan systems, however, can be more widely used if they meet the new recertification standards.

The scaled-back use of the electronic machines will force dozens of counties to move back to a system of paper ballots and optical scanners, but with only six months to do so. It is unclear whether manufacturers can provide enough scanners or paper ballots in time.

"Printing new ballots is not going to be like running out to Kinkos," said Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir, president of the state association of registrars. "It's a tougher job."

For the voting machines still allowed, Bowen imposed additional security requirements.

Those requirements, many of which are highly technical, include banning all modem or wireless connections to the machines to prevent them from being linked to an outside computer or the Internet. Unneeded ports also must be blocked or disabled.

In addition, Bowen required a full manual count of all votes cast on Diebold or Sequoia machines to ensure accuracy.

The companies that sell the machines in California and other states defended their products as secure and reliable.

Company officials complained that Bowen had decertified their machines based on unrealistic, worst-case scenarios that would be counteracted by security measures taken by the companies and local election officials.

Bowen's decision will "severely limit the options available to local election officials and voters in California," Diebold president Dave Byrd said in a statement.

He said the company's equipment has "proven 100 percent accurate" during Election Day tests in California and elsewhere.

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