The San Luis Obispo Tribune
The push to replace aging voting equipment was born in Florida, but long before the now-infamous 2000 election, the experts who spend their days thinking about elections knew there were potential problems with punch-card voting machines.
“It’s fair to say that the elections community was aware of the chad issue,” said John Mott-Smith, chief of the elections division of the Secretary of State’s office.
Many counties considered buying new election equipment only to decide there were more pressing priorities.
Florida changed that.
Spurred by the election uncertainty of Florida, Proposition 41 is one of two measures on the March 5 ballot dealing with elections. The $200 million Voting Modernization Bond Act of 2002 would offer counties $3 in state money for every $1 counties put towards buying qualified ballot-counting equipment.
The money would help counties move from 1960s-era voting machines to more sophisticated ballot-counting machines.
Election equipment was always “number 11” on counties’ list of Top 10 priorities, says Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack.
To some degree, elections officials were comforted by the fact that the state has policies diminishing the possibility that problems evidenced in Florida would occur in California, Mott-Smith said.
On election nights, Sacramento County regularly hired about 160 ballot “cleaners” to remove those pesky hanging chads.
In the 1980s, the state adopted the “three-corner” rule to decide when to count a vote. The rule says that if two or more corners of the square paper chad are still attached, it’s not a legal vote. Florida did not have a similar rule in place.
“Obviously after what happened in Florida we have to bring our voting machinery in the late 20th century and then into the 21st century,” said Harvey Rosenfield of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. The organization has not formally endorsed the bond measure, but supports moving democracy online.
Doug Louis, executive director of the Election Center, an organization of elections officials, says people just lost faith in punch cards after Florida.
“Given that they have lost so much political support, they are going to have to be replaced,” Louis said.
Not everyone agrees that new voting equipment is needed.
It’s appropriate to use state-issued bonds for dams, roads or school buildings, but not for computerized election equipment, say opponents of the bond offering.
“Assuming the need is there, then it should move higher up in the priority of the general fund,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which pushes for lower taxes. “It’s an inappropriate subject area for bond financing.”
Financing the $200 million in general obligation bonds would bring the state’s total cost to $255 million.
The legislative bill putting the bond on the ballot initially asked for a general fund expenditure of $300 million, but the bill’s backers were eventually convinced a bond issue was the only way to go considering the state’s budget situation.
The Yes on Prop 41 campaign effort is financed by Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment, a touch-screen voting machine manufacturer that has given the campaign all of its money: $100,000.
Nine California counties are under the gun to replace their punch-card election equipment. A federal court ruling issued Feb. 12 is forcing California to get rid of its chad-producing voting machines by the 2004 elections, more than a year before a state-imposed deadline.
Secretary of State Bill Jones had announced late last year that Florida-style punch-card voting machines could not be used after July 2005.
The counties needing to replace punch-card voting machines are: Alameda, Mendocino, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara, Shasta and Solano.
Many election officials had hoped that the passage of Proposition 41 would enable them to buy touch-screen voting machines, but some now say the new deadline will force them to buy cheaper, but less capable machines that read paper ballots.
The touch-screen systems currently in use do not meet the specific requirement in Proposition 41 that a paper receipt be produced for each vote cast. Officials are skeptical that a qualified system can be developed, tested, approved and purchased in time to meet the court’s deadline.
Los Angeles County may be forced to buy a “different but equally antiquated paper-based optical scan system,” McCormack said.
Touch-screen voting systems are more popular with election officials because they prevent voters from selecting too many candidates in a race and can be loaded to display multiple ballot-types and multiple languages. The machines also allow visually impaired voters to cast ballots without human help.
Optical scan systems read paper ballots in which voters fill in bubbles indicating their selection with a pen or a pencil.
Proposition 41 backers say the collective pool of federal, state and county monies would be enough to replace voting equipment across the state.
Replacing punch-card voting machines with touch-screen ones would cost around $375 million, according to an estimate.
The $375 million could be reached by combining the $200 million in state money with the $67 million counties would be required to contribute and $108 million in federal dollars (the state’s expected share of pending federal legislation).
Elections officials say they’d be in a bind if Proposition 41 does not pass.
“We would still have to replace our voting systems,” said Earnest Hawkins, Sacramento County’s registrar of voters. “With a $22 million projected deficit, I don’t know where the money is coming from.”
Contact Ed Fletcher of the Sacramento Bee in California at [email protected].