FROM:   Kim Alexander
DATE:   March 31, 2003
RE:   San Diego may delay purchase of touchscreen systems

Hi Folks:

Today's San Diego Union-Tribune features an excellent story about San Diego County's plans to spend $25-$30 million on new, touchscreen voting machines that do not have a voter-verified paper audit trail. The county's efforts have been slowed because of doubts being raised about the security of such voting systems.

The Washington Post also published a story last Friday about voting system reliability concerns being raised by computer scientists such as David Dill and Rebecca Mercuri. That story, called "New voting systems assailed", is online at

Below is the full text of theSan Diego Union-Tribune story, which is also online at

FYI, toward the end of this piece there is a quote from a representative of Georgia's election office asserting strong public support for the state's new paperless touchscreen system. However, a poll conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute for Government and released earlier this month found a severe racial disparity in Georgia voters' confidence in their new voting system. The Peach State Poll, conducted in December 2002, found that while 79 percent of white Georgia voters said they were "very confident" their votes would be accurately counted, only 40 percent of black Georgia voters said they were "very confident" their votes would be accurately counted. The poll is online at A press release is also available

-- Kim Alexander, California Voter Foundation


A vote of little confidence
State doubts slow county's move to electronic balloting

By Luis Monteagudo Jr.
Staff Writer, San Diego Union-Tribune

March 31, 2003

Less than a year before the next elections, San Diego County officials are delaying the purchase of new voting machines because the secretary of state wants to address doubts about the electronic polling technology.

The registrar of voters had hoped to ask the Board of Supervisors next month to spend as much as $30 million to buy 10,000 touch-screen voting machines from Diebold Elections Systems Inc. of Ohio.

Registrar Sally McPherson said she may wait until June because state elections officials may seek improvements in the machines.

"We're very, very anxious," McPherson said. "We've been working on this for two years and we really did our homework and now this is thrown in."

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a Democrat, created a task force Feb. 19 to address questions raised by critics of electronic voting.

Computer scientists and others say the machines are vulnerable to hackers and don't provide proof with a paper trail that each vote has been counted accurately.

Elections officials in San Diego County and elsewhere say the critics' concerns are overblown and unfounded. They say that no significant problems have occurred in elections involving the machines, and that tests are used to assure the accuracy of voting results.

But, Shelley said, "Whatever system we use has to be an accurate system and one the public has to have trust in."

Shelley said he hopes the state task force can provide recommendations by mid or late April.

The nine-member panel includes Charlie Wallis, a technology coordinator for San Diego County's registrar's office. The task force's recommendations would go to Shelley, the state's highest election official.

Shelley said he would not approve any recommendations if they cannot be accomplished by the March 2 presidential primary, which is when the county wants to use the new machines.

"We're not going to change horses in the middle of the stream," he said.

San Diego County supervisors voted in December 2000 to switch to an electronic voting system after the accuracy of punch-card ballots was questioned during that year's presidential election fiasco in Florida.

California counties also are under a court order issued last year to upgrade their voting systems.

The registrar's office selected Diebold last November after reviewing proposals from 10 vendors. One of the losing bidders officially protested the county's choice, but the county denied the claim.

Machines questioned

Critics have urged state and county governments to slow their rush toward the new technology and ask more questions about the systems.

David Dill, a computer sciences professor at Stanford University, started an online petition in January calling for the machines to provide "a permanent record of each vote that can be checked for accuracy by the voter before the vote is submitted."

Nearly 600 individuals, including scientists, students and elected officials, have signed the petition.

Dill and others said that by providing a paper ballot after voters have made their choices, officials later can verify the results tabulated by the machines.

"We're really saying don't move too far away from the way elections have been done for the last hundred years," Dill said.

The machines the county has chosen can produce paper ballots after each vote. But McPherson, the county registrar, said she will not require paper ballots unless they are needed for a recount.

Paper ballots aren't needed, she said, because the Diebold machines will display the choices made by the voter before the ballot is formally cast.

Outputting paper ballots also could delay voting at the county's 1,600 polling places and potentially cause problems, such as paper jams in printers.

Critics also contend that electronic voting machines could be tampered with by hackers and others intent on stealing an election.

Bev Harris, a literary publicist and author, has written a book to be published in May titled, "Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century."

Harris said she used the Google search engine in January to find a Web site containing thousands of election folders and files for the Diebold system.

She said the files contain important source code - the instructions for computer programs. Anyone with computer expertise could download that information and use it to hack into Diebold's system or to reprogram a Diebold machine, Harris said.

"The names on the files indicated they were putting in stuff that was way too sensitive to go on a public Web site," Harris said. "It really brought into question the integrity of their elections."

Problems addressed

Frank Caplan, a Diebold spokesman, acknowledged the Web site existed, but said it has been taken down.

It was a place for the company and its customers to exchange information files that could be used for presentations, Caplan said. The site did not contain files with vital source code, he said.

"We do not put county election materials that are related to source code material on a public Web site," Caplan said.

Independent computer experts said that type of file-sharing site is commonly used by software developers. But if, as Diebold contended, the files had no source code, then not many people in the world would know how to use the files to hack into the company's network.

"The threat is tiny. Not zero, but tiny," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, an educational group for computer security professionals.

Eugene Schultz, a computer security researcher at the Berkeley National Laboratory, said he believes electronic voting systems provide more security. But he pointed to news last month that an intruder gained access to 8 million credit card account numbers.

"If big companies with high-stakes financial systems are creating these colossal errors, what can we expect from local governments who have these voting systems?" Schultz said.

But state and local elections officials said electronic voting systems are very secure because they are not exposed to the Internet.

In San Diego, voting machines and smart cards used in the devices will record votes on backup systems. The cards will be collected and their vote results sent via modem or driven to the county election office. The data is encrypted before it is sent to the county office. The vote results would be kept on a secure server not hooked up to the Internet.

"(Diebold is) not running the election here," McPherson said. "We're buying some equipment, we're buying some software. But they're not running the election."

Diebold defended

Elections officials statewide say any system has flaws, but voting machines have been proven in the field and they have survived legal challenges, including a federal lawsuit last year in Riverside.

"(Critics) are trying to take us back to the 19th century," said Alameda County Registrar Brad Clark.

Diebold machines have been used in elections in Los Angeles and Alameda counties and in Georgia, where a few problems were reported.

In Georgia in November, some machines broke down and more than 100 voters complained the machines highlighted the names of candidates they had not selected.

Georgia officials said the problems were corrected.

"The election itself worked out very well and the public was very loud in its support for the system," said Michael Barnes, an assistant director of elections in Georgia.

Los Angeles and Alameda election officials said they have not had any major problems with Diebold machines.

"We're very, very pleased," said Los Angeles County Registrar Conny McCormack. "They've done a tremendous job."

San Diego County officials are still negotiating with Diebold. The contract, which will include machines and software, is expected to total $25 million to $30 million. The county hopes to pay for most and possibly all of the contract with state and federal funding.

Luis Monteagudo: (619) 542-4589;
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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This page was first published on March 31, 2003 | Last updated on March 31, 2003
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