By Chris Levister
When California Secretary of State Debra Bowen moved last month to pull the plug on touch screen voting machines used in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and most of the state because of serious security concerns, she was aptly prepared for a fire storm.
After all when her predecessor, Kevin Shelly, tried to get tough on the e-voting companies in the run-up to the 2004 election - first by insisting on a voter verifiable paper trail and then decertifying an entire class of Diebold machines following what he called ‘a litany of company lies and incompetence' - he quickly found himself surrounded by flame throwers, accused of everything from fits of temper to campaign irregularities. Shelly was forced to resign, his reputation burned beyond recognition.
Undaunted Bowen campaigned and was elected on a promise to return integrity to California's electoral process. Now with the venerable Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/ County Clerk Conny McCormack claiming her decision to retire after 12 years was influenced by the touch screen voting debate and county after county crying foul that they have lost millions and can't use their not-too-old touch screens, the e-voting debate is intensifying amid growing criticism of the machines.
"Bowen claims it is possible to hack into the voting machines, but that is fear-mongering without a factual basis and it is extremely disruptive on the voting process," fumed McCormack, who has held the job since 1995.
Sounding less than happy, San Bernardino Registrar Kari Verjil says the county is scrambling to make changes before the presidential primary in February. She says Bowen's decision to decertify the county's $16 million voting system will cost taxpayers an additional $1.5 million to switch back to paper ballots.
The county will still put one electronic voting unit at each polling place for disabled voters. That means only 500 of the county's 4,000 units will actually be used.
Supervisor Josie Gonzales offered her sympathy to Verjil's office, saying anyone frustrated with slow results on Election Night should aim their annoyance at the state.
Gonzales joined other critics of Bowen's decision because it was made after a study her office commissioned, in which access codes were provided to University of California students who are computer experts. The codes enabled the students to hack into the systems, which critics have said invalidates the study.
California counties are scrambling to replace touch screen voting machines with paper ballots in time for the February 5 presidential primary elections.
"The test was not conducted under real-life voting conditions," said Verjil in agreement.
The blogosphere is buzzing with opinions. One testy online blogger awarded Riverside County leaders ‘top prize for head in the sand obtuseness'. The county board of supervisors recently commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to look at the county's $25 million voting systems and the - panel - independent of Bowen's office reported back that e-voting was a liability the county should move away from as fast as possible.
But that didn't stop county registrar Barbara Dunmore, from continuing to support her Sequoia machines and insisting that they have been problem free for 39 elections.
Riverside County voters are virtually certain to encounter paper ballots at the polls in February, but the exact system they'll use is an open question as representatives of the county and a manufacturer haggle over replacement equipment costs.
County Supervisor Jeff Stone, an outspoken defender of Sequoia's touch screens, had harsh words for a Sequoia executive who refused to agree to a rebate or short term lease of the machines.
"As a county that took a financial risk, on your machines, I would hope there would be a little more goodwill between the county and Sequoia," said Stone.
"Bowen's decision has jolted Sequoia just as heavily as it has the local governments it does business with," responded Sequoia Vice President of Sales Howard Cramer.
Dunmore warned, "I think it's going to be a tumultuous process at the polls."
Meanwhile a group of California voters who filed suit challenging former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson's 2006 certification of Diebold touch screen machines for use in the state have withdrawn their court case saying Bowen's historic action constituted vindication of the voting security concerns raised in their lawsuit.
"Secretary Bowen should be commended for moving the state and the nation in the right direction on the critical questions facing our elections today," said Charles Fox, a voter plaintiff in the case.
California is not alone in rejecting e-voting: New Mexico and intriguingly, Florida have reverted to paper ballots, as have dozens of individual counties across the country. The importance of California in the national debate remains considerable because of its size and concentration of computer science experts.
Paper ballot proponents say Bowen's ruling sends a strong message - ‘money and influence do not votes buy' and while the e-voting debate promises to rage on - a growing number of researchers are betting California will led the way by accelerating the nationwide trend away from electronic voting to something more transparent and verifiable.
In other words, said an advocate, "Bowen has notched an unambiguous victory for the cause of voter rights."