November 6, 2008 - TOUCH-SCREEN MACHINES FOR DISABLED VOTERS FAIL
Paper: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Title: TOUCH-SCREEN MACHINES FOR DISABLED VOTERS FAIL
Date: November 6, 2008
Author: Karen de Sa Mercury News
If more evidence was needed to explain why California has mostly abandoned touch-screen voting, Santa Clara County provided it this week. Fifty-seven electronic voting machines for the disabled malfunctioned Tuesday and could not be replaced for hours, despite requirements that they be available in each precinct.
Computer scientist Noel Runyan -- who is blind and advises California's secretary of state on voting access issues -- managed to vote in San Jose, despite what he called virtually inaudible voice recordings of his candidate choices and an "angry squirrel sound" in the background. But other machines had to be shut down altogether, after they arrived from storage with faulty printer connections, broken screens or dead batteries.
Runyan said other blind voters in the county called him this week to complain about touch screens made by Sequoia Voting Systems, which he described as poorly designed and manufactured. Santa Clara County spent $18 million in 2003 on thousands of the machines, which are now mostly mothballed and used only for disabled voters as alternatives to pen-and-paper ballots.
Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer, whose Oakland-based company serves 20 California counties and 17 states, said she received no complaints about Tuesday's election. "Our equipment is very user-friendly for both poll workers and voters , as is evidenced by the relatively calm election day -- especially given the unprecedented turnout and the unprecedented scrutiny," Shafer said. "We feel very good about the performance."
But Runyan said that in elections past, he has fiddled with faulty keyboard connections and loose cables. And in June, his computer scientist wife had to help reboot a machine at one local precinct.
"One shouldn't have to have a computer scientist to take along with you to be able to vote," Runyan said. "If they are used again, we will have people who are disenfranchised again."
Last year, California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified widespread use of touch-screen machines, including Sequoia's, following a "top-to-bottom" review that included Runyan's input. Bowen's action reflected concerns over possible hacking and other security vulnerabilities.
By law, one disabled-access machine is required per precinct to provide audio recordings, magnified texts and large-button keypads. State officials certified Sequoia touch screens for such use in Santa Clara County under "severe restrictions" given the "serious security vulnerabilities." The county now uses just 785 of the 5,500 machines it bought shortly after former Registrar of Voters Kathryn Ferguson took a job with Sequoia.
The county bought the machines under a federal court order to replace its outdated punch-card system. But on Tuesday, with record-high turnout of almost 85 percent, the vulnerabilities of touch-screen voting re-emerged -- prompting the registrar 's office to stress again its new focus on early voting and voting by mail.
Although plenty of paper ballots were available Tuesday, officials said they view the touch-screen malfunctions as serious. "It's something that we've now identified that has to get resolved before the next election," said registrar spokesman Matt Moreles.
Still, some observers faulted the county for poor foresight. Backup machines took three hours to prepare, with some arriving as late as 2 p.m.
"Either there's a need for better equipment, or Santa Clara County needs to try harder to support it. And frankly, I'm not sure there's better equipment because it's all pretty flaky," said Stanford University computer science Professor David Dill, another outspoken critic of electronic voting. "Right now, we're stuck with the technology we have -- so we need to put more money and effort into getting machines out to the polling places if they break."
Edition: Valley Final
Record Number: 1032840
Copyright (c) 2008 San Jose Mercury News