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Voting Technology

June 27, 2005


Alameda County Board of Supervisors
1221 Oak Street
Oakland, CA   94612

RE:  Alameda County’s Voting System Plans

Dear Supervisors:

I’m writing to you on behalf of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization advancing the responsible use of technology in the democratic process, regarding Alameda County’s plans to make changes to its voting system in order to comply with federal and state accessibility and security mandates. 

I understand that the Alameda Board of Supervisors is considering replacing its entire inventory of 4,000 Diebold Accuvote TS touchscreen voting machines with Diebold’s newer, TSx machines that are equipped with a voter-verified paper audit trail printer.  According to Elaine Ginnold, Alameda’s interim Registrar of Voters, the anticipated cost of making this change is approximately $6 million.

I would like to provide you with some alternatives to consider prior to making this decision.

Alternative #1: Phase in the use of paper ballots and reduce the county’s dependence on touchscreen voting machines.

Alameda could increase its use of its paper-based, optical scan system and retain one voting machine per polling place to provide disabled voters with the ability to cast a secret ballot without assistance.  

Alameda already owns a Diebold optical scan voting system, which the county purchased along with the touchscreens to serve Alameda’s absentee voters.  Absentee voters comprised more than one-third of all the county’s voters in the November 2004 election.  The rate of absentee voting in Alameda County has doubled in recent years, from just 18 percent of all voters in March 2002 voting absentee to nearly 37 percent voting absentee last November.

Alameda is not the only California county seeing a rapid increase in absentee voting;  some counties are seeing their absentee voting rate approaching 50 percent.  These voting trends are leading many counties to use paper-based, optical scan systems in polling places as well as for absentee voting rather than spend millions of dollars on voting machines that fewer and fewer voters will use.  These counties are planning to deploy one voting device per polling place to provide disabled voters with an accessible voting unit. 

This “blended” approach could save the county a considerable amount of money and staff time.  Some may argue that ballot printing costs can be expensive, and that may be true.  But the county ought to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis before making any further purchasing decisions.  This analysis should include all costs and not just the purchase costs, factoring in costs such as overtime, personnel, security, machine deployment, maintenance, programming and batteries. 

Florida’s Miami Dade county recently undertook a similar analysis.  Their elections supervisor has recommended to his board of supervisors that Miami Dade consider phasing out its touchscreen machines and phasing in a paper-based optical scan system, both for the sake of improving voter confidence and to save money. 

I bring up Miami Dade because that county and Alameda face similar situations.  Both counties purchased thousands of voting machines several years ago, both counties have experienced repeated technical and security problems with their equipment, and both counties serve voters in three different languages.  Another large jurisdiction, Cook County, Illinois, recently decided to replace its punch card system with a blended system featuring optical scan paper ballots in polling places and one touchscreen per polling place for accessibility.  Cook County, like Miami Dade, recognizes the cost-savings and added voter confidence to be gained from relying on paper, rather than electronic voting systems.

Alternative #2:  Consider phasing in optical scan voting this November.

Alameda could begin the process of expanding its optical scan system into polling places with the upcoming November election.  This special election provides an excellent opportunity for your county to test optical scan ballots in polling places, as well as determining whether a paper system will be more cost-effective and secure.  How much money would Alameda save if it kept most of its touchscreen machines in storage this November, and how do these savings compare to ballot printing costs?  An honest assessment of the costs associated with different approaches is needed before the county expends more money on more voting equipment.

Alternative #3:  Consider other vendors.

Ms. Ginnold indicated in a June 27, 2005 news article that the costs of entirely replacing the county’s Diebold voting system would be $14 million.  It appears this estimate is based on the notion that Alameda would stay with an all-electronic voting system.  What would the cost be if Alameda went out to bid on an optical scan system?  These are the kinds of questions that should be considered in a cost-benefit analysis.  If Alameda were to switch from Diebold to another vendor, it would not be the first county to do so.  Last year, Solano County ended its contract with Diebold because the company made false certification claims – a situation that similarly occurred in Alameda and led your county to sue Diebold.

Considering other vendors would open up some competition in Alameda, which in the voting equipment business is crucial if your county is to receive a truly competitive price on its election equipment and services.

Alternative #4:  Implement additional public election verification measures to improve voter confidence.

Alameda’s history with Diebold includes at least one incident of the company’s software misreading votes.  In the October 2003 Recall election, Diebold’s optical scan software attributed 9,000 votes to a Socialist Recall candidate that should have gone to Cruz Bustamante.  This error was discovered because election officials were able to compare the paper optical scan ballots to the Diebold software’s vote count.  With Diebold’s electronic voting system, there is currently no paper audit trail that can be used to meaningfully verify the software vote totals.

State law requires that counties perform a public, manual tally of a subset of ballots selected at random and count those ballots by hand.  The hand-counted totals are compared to the software-counted totals to verify that the software worked properly.  In October 2003 I observed Alameda County’s manual count and discovered that the paper, absentee ballots cast by voters were not used during this process.  These are the same ballots that eventually led election officials to discover that Diebold’s vote counting software was not working properly.  Alameda’s Board of Supervisors can and should require your elections office to include absentee ballots in the manual count process.

In conclusion, I urge you to wait until Diebold’s TSx machine is state-certified before entering into contract negotiations with the company.  As one who has monitored the state certification process for several years, I have seen a pattern emerge with Diebold when it comes to certification.  In 2003, Diebold sold and delivered thousands of its TSx machines in California to several counties prior to federal qualification or state certification.  Once these counties acquired the equipment, they then pressured the Secretary of State to certify the equipment on an expedited basis.  This, in turn, led to widespread equipment problems and the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, particularly in San Diego county, where voters experienced equipment problems in nearly half of the county’s polling places. 

Even if you write it into your contract that Alameda will not purchase equipment until it is certified, it is likely that Diebold will use its Alameda contract to expedite certification of the TSx.  I realize there are upcoming deadlines to meet, but if it is true that the TSx will be certified within the next few weeks, as Ms. Ginnold has stated, it would be prudent for Alameda to wait until it is actually state-certified before entering into negotiations for it.  During this time, the county could explore the other options outlined above and undertake a thorough cost-benefit assessment of those options.

I appreciate your consideration of these matters and am happy to discuss these issues further with you at any time. 



Kim Alexander, President
California Voter Foundation



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