Voters here in Berkeley and throughout Alameda county could be back to voting on paper in the November elections, according to a stunning, far-reaching ruling last week by California Secretary of State Kevin Shelly.
Late last Friday, Shelly decertified all touchscreen machines in California citing security concerns. The decision came days after a state panel, the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel, voted unanimously to continue using the machines as long as they met a string of new security requirements. The secretary of state’s decision both alters and adds to the panel’s recommendation by taking the machines out of service, forcing them to be recertified to prove they have made the required security updates. Included in that decertification were the Diebold touchscreen voting machines used in Alameda County.
With only six months before the election, the secretary’s decision has left county election officials throughout the state—including the Alameda County Registrar of Voters—scrambling to re-do their voting systems. According to the secretary’s spokesperson Doug Stone, Shelly’s office will be drawing up a timeline to try and insure the re-certification process can be done before the election.
“Right now we are talking with the counties and the vendors in terms of creating a realistic process, and that should be known shortly,” Stone said.
But according to Alameda county’s assistant Registrar of Voters, Elaine Ginnold, any time line is going to be hard to meet with only six months to go.
“From the surface, it looks pretty impossible,” said Ginnold. Or maybe, she explained, just “doubtful. ... We’re in election limbo. It’s not pleasant.”
Shelly’s decision forces affected counties to either install a voter-verified paper trails on their electronic voting machines or else meet 23 security measures before he recertifies those machines. According to Ginnold, Alameda County has pretty much ruled out the option of making their machines produce a paper trail because the changes would take too long.
The county is therefore currently trying to work through the second option to see how many of those requirements they can meet. Ginnold said the county already meets a number of them but is worried that it will get hung up time-wise on just one or two.
In particular she is worried about one of the requirements that would force the county to seek federal approval for a software update on the county’s central tabulation software. Because they need federal approval to meet a state requirement, she thinks the process could take longer than the allotted six months.
Another recertification requirement is a firmware update that also has to be federally certified.
Because potentially neither option could work out for Alameda County, Ginnold said they are also looking for their own solutions. One would be reverting back to paper ballots entirely. Paper ballots would qualify as a paper trail and therefore meet Shelly’s demands.
Reverting back to paper ballots would also be time consuming and costly, but Ginnold said it looks like one of the only realistic options given such a short period of time.
If paper ballots were used they would be made available at polling places and then either counted on optical scan machines at the polling places or sent to a central tabulation location—most likely the county seat in Oakland—where they would all be counted at one time. Either way, the county would have to invest in optical scan machines for the polling places or the county’s tabulation sites.
In his press release Shelly said he had taken into consideration the additional costs any changes will result in.
“I understand the financial constraints counties are under right now and they will not incur any additional cost as a result of the measure I have announced today,” he wrote.
Shelly also said he considered banning touchscreen voting machines outright. Along with his decision about the type of machines used in Alameda county, he banned four other counties outright from using a similar, but modified, version of the touchscreen machines.
Meanwhile, whistle blowers across the country are cheering Shelly’s decision, hoping it will influence other states struggling with similar issues.
“Kevin Shelly is without a doubt a leader in the United States,” said Bev Harris, a well-known activist and opponent of the current touchscreen technology who runs the website blackboxvoting.org. “He has tremendous pressure on him. I have the utmost respect for him and the people who work for him.”
“We are going to see a lot more of this to come. You simply cannot have companies with insecure software and insecure procedures, and one that lies to the authorities running the elections,” she said.
Harris said Shelly’s move was an important step in taking a more in-depth look at the election process in general, which she said has flaws that are even larger than touchscreen machines. For example, she said, even if paper ballots are used, several counties, including Alameda County, use central tabulation software made by Diebold that has also been heavily scrutinized.
“We need to step back and take a look,” she said. “We need to stop saying that everything is going to go smoothly and set up some other checks and balances.”
She also proposes that Diebold should be forced to pay for all the cost counties will now incur to meet Shelly’s demands.
For now, Ginnold said the Registrar of Voters office is doing its best to ensure the vote runs smoothly, and accurately in November.
“We’re just trying to digest,” said Ginnold. They’re “trying to determine what our options are.”