FROM:   Kim Alexander
DATE:   February 5, 2003
RE:   Santa Clara county voting tech update

Hi Folks,

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has postponed its decision to purchase a paperless touchscreen voting system, following a meeting of its Finance and Government committee last Friday and a meeting of the full board yesterday, where issues of security, cost and disability access were raised.

The security issues have received new attention due to the efforts of several Silicon Valley computer scientists, in particular David Dill, Barbara Simons and Peter Neumann. All three spoke before the finance committee last Friday to bring their security concerns to the attention of the committee, as well as several other area technologists. Dill and Neumann again addressed the supervisors during yesterday's meeting.

I attended last Friday's meeting, and informed the supervisors that they had to meet Prop. 41's paper trail standards if they hope to obtain the $9.5 million in state funds they are expecting to help pay for the proposed $20 million Sequoia voting system. I told the supervisors that the bond act requires counties who get reimbursed to print paper ballot images for all of their ballots cast. I said they could do this either when the voter votes, which CVF prefers, or they could do it at poll closing time, but either way they had to print one hundred percent of the ballots that are cast. It was news to them, and they thanked me for bringing this particular funding issue to their attention.

Next Tuesday, February 11 the board plans to hold a voting equipment workshop to give the supervisors a better chance to explore the cost, security and disability issues. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. and is open to the public.

Today's San Jose Mercury News features an article highlighting the supervisors' discussion yesterday, at In addition, Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor weighed in with a column last week warning Silicon Valley politicians that they are on the verge of making a horrible e-voting mistake. "It's incredible to me," Gillmor wrote, "that the most high-tech place in America -- where people understand that technology is full of bugs and holes that can be exploited -- is so close to such a terrible move. The right to vote -- for that vote to be counted with integrity -- is at the heart of liberty. People are already skeptical. If we continue on this path, pure cynicism will corrode what's left of public trust in an already frayed system." Gillmor's column is online at

Yesterday's Mercury News carried another editorial, urging the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to show leadership and heed the warnings they were hearing from computer scientists. It also featured a telling quote by the county's election director from a recent Wired News story, which is online at,1367,57490,00.html.

The Mercury News' February 4, 2003 editorial is online at The text is below.

-- Kim Alexander, California Voter Foundation,, (916) 441-2494

(San Jose Mercury News Editorial, posted on Tue, Feb. 04, 2003)

Supervisors are close to irresponsible vote

Santa Clara County supervisors, on the verge of buying a costly new electronic voting system, are about to ignore the advice of dozens of computer scientists. That would be irresponsible.

The scientists are urging them not to buy a $20 million touch-screen system that doesn't give voters a paper copy, allowing them to verify their ballot. At a minimum, the supervisors should delay a decision until they can learn more about what's at stake.

It might seem odd that prominent computer scientists are saying that paper still has a role to play in a highly computerized world. But they know problems with computers, from software glitches to sabotage. That's why they've taken a public stand.

More than 100 professors and other experts have signed a petition that Stanford University computer science professor David Dill began circulating last month. It says voting machines that don't have a "voter-verifiable audit" -- a paper copy that voters can inspect -- can't be trusted and shouldn't be used.

The supervisors are under pressure to move forward. A federal court has given Santa Clara and other California counties until March 2004 to stop using their old punch-card systems; the county counsel is advising them that the judge won't brook a delay.

None of the three vendors that submitted bids to the county offers a paper trail. State law doesn't require it, and the state has certified the vendors' systems.

The vendors claim they could make modifications but no one has asked for them -- certainly not Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Jesse Durazo. He dismissively told Wired News last week, "These scientific smart people have not worked in an election, but they've created this whole UFO effect."

Sequoia Voting Systems, the winning bidder, insists that its touch-screen machines are trustworthy. The machines have storage and tabulation redundancy; they are inspected and tested before each election.

These assurances may satisfy Durazo, but they don't mollify the computer scientists. Sequoia and all of the vendors use proprietary software. Their codes are secret. Without a voter-verifiable paper copy to ensure against fraud and mistakes, the county will be buying a black box.

A handful of Jeremiahs have been raising doubts about touch-screen systems for years, only to be discounted by elections officials like Durazo and others. Now, thanks to Dill's petition, the skeptics are finally gaining attention.

Their warnings are serious. The supervisors should show leadership and heed them.


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This page was first published on February 5, 2003 | Last updated on February 5, 2003
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