California puts the brakes on unreliable computer voting

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California was one of the first US states to embrace computer voting technology, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in touchscreen machines that promised to catapult the balloting process into the 21st century.

California was one of the first US states to embrace computer voting technology, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in touchscreen machines that promised to catapult the balloting process into the 21st century.

Now, however, it has become the first state to slam the brakes on computer voting, in response to reports about the systems' susceptibility to breakdown, potentially undetectable malfunction and outright fraud.

In a series of public hearings over the past 10 days, a panel of state-appointed elections experts has heard the head of one voting machine company apologise for breaking state and federal certification laws in the deployment of his products, and admitting that he and his underlings were "not the smartest".

The panel has detailed how, during California's presidential primary election in March, two counties suffered a major meltdown because battery packs attached to a crucial piece of equipment had drained the night before. In San Diego, no back-up paper ballots were available, disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters. Even on the machines that could be turned on, several thousand votes were erroneously transferred from John Kerry, the eventual winner of the Democratic Party primary, to Dick Gephardt, who had dropped out of the race two months earlier.

The panel also listened to testimony from computer experts, election lawyers and citizens' advocates explaining that, as currently configured, there is no way of being sure that votes are recorded accurately. Meaningful recounts are, likewise, impossible. "Even if everything appears to go perfectly, we still can't verify the results," said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, a leading critic of touchscreen voting machines.

She argued that federal and state certification is being conducted - if at all - to "ancient" standards drawn up in 1990, in the pre-internet age. Machines are being tested for functional aspects - whether they turn on and off and display on screen what they are supposed to display - but not for software bugs, malicious codes, and so-called "back doors" enabling tampering with the system from afar.

With barely six months to go before November's presidential election, California's election officials say they are no longer willing to take chances. Nobody wants a repeat of the Florida recount fiasco four years ago, and the disasters of the March primary have proved an effective warning. "A year ago, I brushed off a lot of concerns about security as paranoia. I don't feel that way any more," said Marc Carrel, the panel's deputy chairman.

The panel voted unanimously to decertify one machine, made by Diebold Election Systems, which has never received federal approval and won provisional acceptance from the state because of assurances from the company that proved to be misleading. The TSx machine, purchased by four counties including San Diego, represents 78 per cent of Diebold's total sales in California, and roughly one-third of all the machines in the state.

The panel further recommended halting all further purchases of touchscreen machines unless they are fitted with a voter-verified paper trail - a separate record of voting intentions that can be cross-checked with the computer results and used to conduct recounts - and insisted that paper alternatives should be made available at all polling stations in November for voters who would prefer to cast their ballot that way.

The repercussions of the hearings are likely to be felt far and wide - including in Ireland, which is about to decide whether to introduce computer voting for June's European elections.

Already, a handful of US states have initiated debate on the wisdom of switching from the reviled old punchcard machines to something potentially even worse. Touchscreens are likely to be most prevalent in the south in November, including such swing states as Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida.

California's top elections official, the Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, is expected to adopt the panel's recommendations. Last year, he introduced rules forcing touchscreen manufacturers to provide a voter-verified paper trail by 2006, and he may accelerate that process. But he is likely to be challengedby the voting machine manufacturers and the county registrars who have invested so heavily in their products, and by a bill pending in the state legislature that would ban touchscreen machines outright.