Election '07: Electronic voting system overhauled
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The way we make choices is about to change.

A sweeping electoral security review commissioned by California’s latest Secretary of State found serious flaws in electronic voting machines, prompting a slew of new restrictions to the way every vote gets counted, beginning with next Tuesday’s election.

But critics such as the New America Foundation say the new regulations invite unnecessary costs, including an estimated $300,000 for San Francisco alone, and unduly erode the public’s faith in the electoral process.

“The order, to be honest, makes absolutely no sense,” said Steven Hill, a program director at the Washington D.C.-based non-profit public policy institute. “The electoral process in the San Francisco Bay Area should be considered a model for the rest of California and the rest of the country.”

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s chief elections officer, announced the new regulations in an Aug. 3 statement, when the findings of the statewide review she’d ordered were released.

“The systems we use to cast and tally votes in this state are the most fundamental tools of our democracy,” Bowen wrote. “Applying proper auditing procedures […] gives us the ability to begin rebuilding voter confidence.”

In March, Bowen ordered a two-month review of voting machines by teams of computer security experts from the University of California.

To address fears that the machines were not accurately tabulating ballots, every vote will now be counted at each polling place and then recounted at San Francisco City Hall election headquarters, where high-tech optical scanners can tally up to 10,000 ballots an hour.

In setting new measures, Bowen said she sought a system that had the highest level of “transparency” and “auditability” possible.

Hill estimated that implementing the new restrictions would cost an additional $300,000—a price tag that sparked debate.

Bowen initially argued to force manufacturers of the electronic voting machines to pick up the tab for the extra expenses, because it was their security failures that prompted the review. But when the vendors pointed that the secretary did not have the power to enforce the order, counties were left to pay up for themselves.

“I can’t say enough about how the Secretary of State has made a very poor decision,” Hill said.

The extra workload also means the city will be working overtime. Giannina Miranda, executive assistant with the Department of Elections, said that the city is prepared to hire new poll workers to work around the clock over the weekend to check the incoming ballots and count votes.

The conditional re-certification of the voting machines has spurred new restrictions that city workers must obey, according to an Oct. 2 memo sent by SF Director of Elections John Arntz.

For example, if the department receives ballots that have been filled using anything other than a #2 pencil or black ink, in some cases poll workers will refill the ballot by hand.

Hill criticized the new measures, saying that some open the door to fraud—more hands on the ballots and the additional time means yet-to-be-counted ballots sit in storage, where they are susceptible to security lapses.

“They are making decisions that really undermine the election, which is ironic because they set out to improve the electoral process,” Hill said.

Bowen’s team found the common problems in many electronic voting systems in use today include vulnerability to physical and technological attacks, the risk of spreading malicious software from one machine to another and a lack of overall accuracy and integrity.

The secrecy of balloting could also be in jeopardy, the reviewing team said, because both the electronic and paper trails contain private information that should remain anonymous.

The review process was lauded by Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, a national non-profit elections watchdog group.

In online postings, she called the voting machines “junky” and “manipulation-friendly” and said Bowen had proved herself “one of the gutsiest public officials in the nation by tackling this thorny issue.”

First used during last year's election for city supervisors, the ranked-choice voting system will be featured on the Nov. 6 ballots used to vote for San Francisco's mayor, district attorney, sheriff and several city propositions.

The ballots will allow voters to choose their top three choices for each position. A candidate will be declared the winner if they receive more than 50 percent of the first-place votes. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest number of first-place votes is eliminated and votes are tallied again until a winner is selected.

"It's a good system," said Steven Hill, a director at the non-profit, post-partisan New America Foundation. "Overall, the election process [in San Francisco] works pretty well."

Ranked-choice has been the preferred system because it avoids the necessity of holding a second round of voting. This both saves the city "millions of dollars" according to Hill and ensures minimal drop off in voter turnout, which often "plummets" by 40 percent during secondary elections.

"You increase voter turnout by getting it over in November, more voters are at the polls, more people have a say into what the outcome is," Hill said.

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