Santa Clara County faces key decision on electronic ballots

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Mon Feb 24 13:53:05 EST 2003

The San Jose Mercury News

Posted on Mon, Feb. 24, 2003 

Santa Clara County faces key decision on electronic ballots 

By Katherine Corcoran 
Mercury News 

The future of electronic voting may be rewritten this week in Santa
Clara County, where county leaders are weighing warnings that the
touch-screen voting machines they want to buy are more prone to error
and fraud than the systems they would replace.

National experts on computer security have raised alarming questions
elsewhere about the validity of elections run on touch-screen
machines, which currently don't produce a paper record a voter can use
to check that the machine has recorded decisions accurately. But
scientists didn't get far until they spoke up late last month in the
heart of Silicon Valley, where the Santa Clara County Board of
Supervisors delayed buying 5,000 ATM-like machines for 730,000
registered voters after hearing their concerns.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley followed up on the
decision by convening a statewide task force on the security of
touch-screen voting. And now, three voting machine vendors vying for
Santa Clara County's $20 million contract are saying they will install
a paper audit system at no extra cost if the county becomes the first
jurisdiction nationally to require it.

What the supervisors decide Tuesday, when they're scheduled to adopt a
new voting system, will ripple through other California counties and
is likely to affect the overall move toward electronic voting, the
most popular antidote to the hanging chad debacle of the 2000
presidential election.

``You're at the beginning of what's becoming the modern argument in
voting systems,'' said Kimball Brace, president of Washington,
D.C.-based Election Data Services political consulting firm and an
expert witness in former Vice President Al Gore's court case to get a
Florida recount in 2000. ``What we have out in your jurisdiction is
the first cut of people saying, `Wait a minute, shouldn't you have a
physical ballot in case there is a recount?' It hasn't come up
elsewhere because a lot of people haven't thought about it, or
comprehended the need for it.''

Skepticism voiced 

But in Silicon Valley, where about 42 percent of households have
someone working in the technology industry, people are more aware of
the fallibility of computers. In fact, some of the best brains in the
cyber world, who happen to reside locally, are also the loudest voices
demanding that electronic ballots should also be printed on paper that
voters can inspect. The county registrar would also keep a copy of the
paper record to check the computer in case of irregularities or

Otherwise, they say, voters have no way to verify that the votes they
punch on the screen are the same as those recorded by the computer,
and officials would never know if an election had been
stolen. Trusting the machine to self-audit, critics say, is akin to an
IRS audit on someone who created his own receipts.

``It goes to the heart of our democracy,'' computer scientist Barbara
Simons told supervisors last month. ``If we care about democracy,
there's no more important issue before this board.''

Santa Clara County, like many other counties, is under court order to
replace its punch-card voting system -- the same system that created
so much havoc in Florida -- by the presidential primary in March
2004. After a nine-month process, the county staff recommended in
January that supervisors negotiate a $20 million contract with Sequoia
Voting Systems of Oakland, maker of electronic voting systems across
the country, including in Riverside County in California.

Sequoia's systems don't produce paper ballots that voters can verify,
and supervisors didn't ask for such a device in their bid
proposal. Vendors and election officials say paper ballots aren't
needed because the machines have internal safeguards, are certified by
federal and state governments and tested repeatedly before and after

``We still believe they're secure,'' Assistant County Executive Peter
Kutras said Friday. ``There are not any issues that should cause
concern in terms of voter confidence.''

Last-minute appeal 

But just as supervisors were about to award the contract, they were
stopped dead by an 11th-hour appeal from Stanford University computer
scientist David Dill, who has collected 300-plus signatures from top
scientists and technologists nationwide on a petition urging that the
machines have a voter-verifiable paper backup. They say it would be
easy for a computer programmer to alter the way the machine counted
votes during an election and keep the change from showing up on a
test. They also say voting software, like any other kind, is not
immune to bugs.

``The election could be running smooth as silk,'' Dill said, ``only
the wrong person is elected and no one can tell. No one can prove

After the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election, state
after state began moving to electronic voting machines. The number of
registered voters casting their ballots electronically has more than
doubled to 32 million people nationwide since the last presidential
election. Last year, Californians approved $200 million in bond money
to upgrade voting systems, just as a federal court, in a case brought
by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, outlawed
punch cards such as the one used in Santa Clara County.

None of 510 counties nationwide using electronic voting machines last
November required paper ballots be produced for voters to inspect at
the time of voting. Though electronic voting ran smoothly in Riverside
and Alameda counties, there were numerous problems in other states,
from poll workers not knowing how to turn on the machines to votes
registering for the wrong candidates. Rice University computer
scientist Dan Wallach tried to raise the paper-audit issue in Houston
after the county there adopted electronic voting machines, to no

``There was a certain combination of voter apathy and the naive
Utopian view that it's new, therefore it must be better,'' said
Wallach, a computer security expert who made headlines as a Princeton
graduate student when he found security flaws in Sun Microsystems'
Java software, after the company claimed it was impenetrable. ``David
Dill had the unique advantage of being in an environment where people
get it.''

Vendors and election officials say problems occur with touch-screen
machines not because of fraud, but because counties didn't spend
enough time training poll workers and introducing voters to the new
technology. Santa Clara County officials fear that's what will happen
here if the supervisors take any more time on security problems.

Even if supervisors order a paper audit installed, they can't purchase
equipment until the machines are certified by the secretary of state,
which could take months. Meanwhile, county officials want to have
enough time to get the new voting system working by the November
municipal and school district elections, as a trial run for March

``We strongly recommend the board vote on Tuesday,'' Kutras said. 

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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