20 Calif. Counties Scrap Electronic Vote Machines

Electronic Voting Machines

hide captionRiverside County Registrar Barbara Dunmore stands in a warehouse stacked high with expensive — but now defunct — electronic voting machines.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR
The Old and New Voting Machines

hide captionSome counties in California are back to using old-fashioned paper ballots (left) instead of electronic voting machines (right).

Mandalit del Barco, NPR

California has the most votes at stake on Super Tuesday, but counting those returns could take a lot longer than usual. Electronic voting machines in more than 20 counties have been scrapped because of security concerns.

In the 2000 presidential election, Riverside became the first county in the nation to move entirely to electronic voting.

"We were very, very nervous knowing no one had done it before. On other hand, it was very exciting knowing we were on the cutting edge of technology, deploying this equipment we knew we were going to be able to count votes quicker," says Riverside County Registrar Barbara Dunmore.

Most of Riverside's 3,700 electronic voting units will not be used as planned this year, however.

A study led by UC Berkeley computer scientist David Wagner revealed that e-voting is not as secure and reliable as it should be. As a result, electronic voting machines were decertified across California.

"We found the voting systems — all three of them we looked at — were susceptible to computer viruses," Wagner says.

"An attacker could craft a specially tailored computer virus that could spread throughout a county, and once it infected all the voting machines in a county, could miscount or misrecord the votes."

Wagner says any high-tech attacks would have required sophisticated hackers, but the bottom line is that it was possible to throw a close election.

Now 20 counties are scrambling to prepare for Tuesday's primary. Like Riverside County, most are using election workers to input paper ballots into old-style optical scanners.

Paul Shook is one of the elections workers at county headquarters who now has to hand-feed stacks of paper ballots. They sometimes have to be double-checked and rewritten if a voter makes a mistake or writes in some unofficial candidate.

"Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck ... a lot of times you get Superman also," he says.

On election night, county workers here will have to wait for truckloads of paper ballots to be delivered from remote desert and mountain areas.

Dunmore says it's going to mean the election results won't be tallied for hours or even days.

"E-voting went a long way to make sure all votes recorded accurately. To go back to paper that is so labor intensive, it's gonna be a long night election day," Dunmore says.

Some of Riverside's electronic voting machines will still be available for blind or disabled voters. And Dunmore is hopeful that all of the devices will be recertified one day.

"Using all of this paper to me is like charging forward to the past," she says.

Key States' Plans to Overhaul Voting Systems

Electronic voting machines — once seen as the trendy gadgets of the election world — are losing some of their stature.

Several states are banishing them in time for November's elections, in favor of old-fashioned paper ballots that can be electronically scanned and counted.

"2006 was the high point for electronic machines. Clearly, their numbers are starting to come down," says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, Inc., a consulting firm that works with state governments on such technical matters.

Touch-screen voting machines became popular after the 2000 presidential race between then-Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, when confusing punch-card paper ballots led to thousands of Florida votes being cast aside.

But electronic voting machines have also proved fallible, or at the very least, raised questions about their reliability. In 2006 in Sarasota, Fla., 18,000 ballots cast on touch-screen machines did not show any votes in a close congressional election. There's an ongoing debate about why this happened.

Brace estimates that 50 percent of all registered voters in the U.S. will use paper ballots this year — but not necessarily in time for the upcoming primaries in delegate-rich states.

Here's a glance at what some states are doing to overhaul their voting systems.

Florida: Several Florida counties are dumping their touch-screen voting machines in time for the Jan. 29 primary. Instead, residents will use machines known as optical scanners that will allow voters to fill in their ballots by hand and then feed them into electronic machines to scan their choices. The counties making the switch back to paper ballots are home to roughly half of Florida's registered voters. The entire state will have to use this system for the general election.

California: After a $1 million comprehensive review of the voting system, the secretary of state decided that several of California's electronic voting machines were faulty. Now, in time for the Feb. 5 primary, the secretary of state has ruled that all electronic voting machines must leave a paper trail.

New Jersey: New Jersey residents will vote with electronic voting machines in the Feb. 5 primary, much to the disappointment of some activists. Lawmakers originally wanted the state agency that oversees elections to retrofit all electronic machines with backup paper printouts, but the agency was not able to meet the lawmakers' deadline. Now, the deadline has been pushed back until June, which means the retrofitting should be complete in time for November's general election.

Ohio: Similar to California, the Ohio secretary of state also did a huge review of the state's voting systems. The 57 counties that use touch-screens must switch to optical scanners by the November election. According to the secretary of state's office, voters who feel uncomfortable with touch-screens have the right to ask for a paper ballot on primary day. Ohio has 88 voting counties in total.

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