Electronic voting not likely to end transparency debate

If voters thought the days of hanging chads and alleged vote switching were past, they’d be wrong, according to local activist Brent Turner.

San Mateo County is poised to plunge headfirst into a new electronic voting era come November, for better or for worse. Turner, a Half Moon Bay resident active in campaigns for transparency in new voting technology, worries that as in other counties that have gone electric, questionable election results and lawsuits will follow. Concerns have been raised that the machines are vulnerable to tampering and do not always provide an independently verifiable record of votes.

“I would prefer to be on vacation, have a nice life and go back to what I was doing before, which was working with disadvantaged high school kids and charities,” said Turner, a 44-year-old real estate business owner, of his ongoing efforts. “But it’s just a patriotic duty for me.”

County officials say they have every intention of making sure they avoid the problems that have cropped up in other areas that have adopted electronic voting.

“Initially, [electronic voting] will require elections officials to bend over backwards to make sure that none of the security people felt with paper ballots is lost in the electronic process,” Supervisor Rich Gordon said.

Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum said the county is already working to develop a more stringent auditing and verification process. “We’re going to go above and beyond the state-required 1 percent paper ballot audit to include precinct and individual machine revivification,” Slocum said. In the closest races, verification could require that as many as 5 percent of votes be audited against their paper ballots, he said.

“The voters of San Mateo County can rest assured that whatever my reputation with 30 years of election experience is worth, I’m working damn hard to make sure [voter fraud and lawsuits] don’t happen,” Slocum said.

The adoption of electronic voting systems across the county is being spurred by the Help America Vote Act, passed by federal lawmakers in 2002.

The Act requires counties to adopt state-certified voting machines that allow the disabled to vote privately and independently. So far, only four companies have machines certified as HAVA compliant in California: Diebold, ES&S, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia.

Since becoming interested in voter rights following the 2000 Florida election fiasco, Turner has devoted an ever-increasing amount of time to gathering and distributing information on electronic voting litigation, connecting activists and computer scientists. In the last two weeks alone, he has traveled to Mendocino and San Diego following lawsuits against Diebold election machines, of which there are many.

He has also befriended fellow activist Jim March, of www.blackboxvoting.org fame, bringing him to the county to testify against Hart InterCivic machines, approved unanimously by supervisors last month.

While Hart machines haven’t experienced the kind of problems Diebold’s have, Diebold’s certification raises broader questions, Turner said. “The certification process has to be scrutinized because if Diebold obtained certification, then that raises issues about how other machines were certified.”

Calling what has happened to Diebold in recent years a “business case study in what not to do,” San Mateo County’s Slocum agreed the certification process should be reformed at both the state and federal level.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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