The President of the California Voter Foundation has been closely involved with California’s voting systems for more than twenty years. She opposed California’s use of electronic ballots two decades ago, but supports the electronic ballot marking devices used now. She says people’s lack of trust in voting systems is important to address, but hand counting the ballots across Shasta County is not a smart way to build that trust.
In the late 90’s as technology exploded, Kim Alexander, like many, was interested in seeing voting go digital. So in 1999 when she was asked to serve on the California Secretary of State’s Internet Voting Task Force, Alexander went for it.
But what she learned as part of the task force — findings that were backed the next year by a study from the National Science Foundation — changed her mind about online voting.
More than two decades later, Alexander is still leading the California Voter Foundation and is still opposed to the use of electronic ballots with no verifiable paper trail.
But she supports California’s certified electronic ballot marking devices, including the Dominion voting system machines recently dumped by the Shasta County Board of Supervisors.
It’s one reason she’s been closely watching Shasta County Supervisors’ recent decisions, including the choice to move towards a full manual tally of the County’s votes.
My interest in what is happening in Shasta County,” Alexander told Shasta Scout by phone, “is really driven by this long history of involvement in voting technology issues.”
She’s also connected to Shasta County by Cathy Darling Allen, the County’s Clerk and Registrar of Voters, who, as Alexander made sure to point out, also serves as the chair of the California Voter Foundation.
Alexander’s nonprofit has focused on improving democracy through the responsible use of new technologies since 1994. That’s included strong advocacy for the use of paper ballots, which were briefly abandoned by California in the early 2000s as part of a push towards digital voting.
Alexander firmly opposed digital voting with the use of electronic ballots, a system which was piloted across parts of California in the early 2000s.
“Electronic voting was deployed in several counties,” Alexander said, “and it failed miserably. Half the voting sites in one county were inoperable at some point during the day and there were no paper ballot backups. People were told to go home and come back later, and maybe the machines would be working. The voters there really were disenfranchised.”
“You really were at the mercy of the (voting system) vendors,” Alexander continued. “There was no paper ballot for voters to inspect to ensure that their vote had been faithfully captured.”
The California Voter Foundation and others pushed back against that paperless electronic voting in California, demanding both paper ballots and meaningful paper audits of electronic votes. And in 2004, the California legislature banned electronic voting systems that used digital ballots over concerns about security and reliability.
Within two years, over over 40,000 paperless electronic voting machines in California were either removed from service or retrofitted with printers. That legislation was the beginning of a series of laws that have changed California’s approach to election security, Alexander said.
“There’s a whole slew of laws that have been passed in California (over the last twenty years) that have made elections more secure and made it possible for the voters to see that they’re secure.”
“The testing process changed and now the source code is inspected and there is volume testing and accessibility testing of equipment and laws preventing any election machine system ports from being connected to the internet.”
Alexander’s twenty-five year vantage point on election security gives her a unique perspective and one she feels helps her to relate to the concerns of some who oppose the use of Dominion voting machine systems in Shasta County now.
“When I was fighting for the paper trail (in the early 2000s),” Alexander explained, “I was up against election officials and vendors who said ‘just trust us’ and I would say ‘how dumb do you think we are? We’re not going to trust electronic systems that we can’t verify.’”
“So I understand the skepticism and the distrust. It’s natural to have security concerns about technology. That’s legitimate.”
But while Alexander spent years challenging voting machine systems that utilized digital ballots, she trusts California’s certified ballot marking devices, including those manufactured by both Dominion, and the County’s newly-contracted voting machine system vendor, Hart Intercivic.
Alexander said if you look at voting technology on a spectrum, she sees California’s current ballot marking device (BMD) machines as the most secure and accessible voting technology we’ve had.
That’s because BMDs use the benefits of computer technology to increase accessibility, she said, while maintaining security by producing a paper ballot that the voter can verify.
“No one’s using digital ballots in California anymore,” she explained. “Missouri recently moved to our model, getting rid of electronic voting to move to Ballot Marking Devices, which is the best of both worlds.”
“We started using computer technology to count ballots in the 1960s with punch cards,” Alexander said, explaining that a downside of the punch cards was that they couldn’t be verified without a special guide, because they contained only numbers, not candidate names.
“Now we have handmarked paper ballots that have the candidate names all stated on them and we use optical scan technology to count them, just like an SAT test. It’s about as robust a system as you can have.”
“(In California) we also check that software with a post-election audit, where a subset of the ballots are selected at random and counted by hand publicly and they almost always match and when they don’t, it’s almost always because there’s human error.”
“At this point, yes,” Alexander continued, “we’re using computer technology, but the amount we’re using today is a fraction of the amount we were using twenty years ago.”
But Alexander says without the same deep background and involvement with voting technology she’s been able to have over recent decades, she can understand why people would have concerns about the confusing and complicated elections process. And she deeply appreciates how much people in Shasta County really seem to care about elections.
“I see the base value that Shasta County voters share across the aisle,” Alexander said.
“They all want their vote to count. I’ve watched (many of the Board of Supervisors) meetings and taken dozens of pages of notes of what people say (during public comment) and that’s really what I see as the common through-line.”
“The lesson I’m really learning in Shasta County,” Alexander continued, “is that election security is about both actual security and the perception of security and both are equally important. It’s not enough for elections to be secure; they have to be perceived as secure too.”
But while Alexander is committed to increasing the perception of election security, she doesn’t think hand-counting the votes in a county the size of Shasta is the best path towards increasing trust.
“Transparency is a noble thing to want to give your voters,” Alexander said. “But we need a different strategy to get there because (moving forward with a full manual tally) is setting up the elections office to fail.”
The time that will be needed for hand counting is a real concern to Alexander. The County only has thirty days to get election results to the Secretary of State for certification, meaning if that deadline is missed, local voters will be disenfranchised.
She’s also concerned about the potential for ballots to be altered during a hand counting process, particularly if they’ve been under-voted, a term which refers to not having all the sections of the ballot filled out.
“On every contest on the ballot,” Alexander said, “there are always under-votes and there are also over-votes . . . and if you look at the results from the two Supervisor races in November, Kevin Crye and Chris Kelstrom, the number of under-votes in both contests was greater than the margin of difference between them and the other candidates.”
“And when you have hundreds of people handling the ballots,” she continued, “it’s going to be very difficult to monitor everything that’s going on and there will be opportunities to mark some of those undervotes in a way that counters would prefer, in order to drive the outcome.”
“You can also disqualify a vote by overvoting in a contest,” Alexander explained. “So you could also eliminate votes for a candidate you want to harm by being able to handle those ballots and mark a choice for another candidate in that race in order to negate that vote.”
Alexander said she was relieved last month to see Supervisors choose a vendor to supply the County with BMDs, but believes there’s still much more work to be done to ensure that the Hart system is properly deployed and staff are trained. And that’s just the beginning of all the learning still to come as the County moves towards a hand counting process, she said.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the vote-counting process will look like. We’re all waiting to see what the Secretary of State’s regulations are going to look like and that will help fill out some of that picture. But what the county is contemplating doing is unprecedented,” Alexander continued. “There is no other election jurisdiction in this Country that is contemplating taking on what Shasta County is considering doing.”
“I understand that there are legitimate concerns about election security. But I think there are other ways to accomplish it and I hope with all my heart that the Supervisors choose them.”