February 09, 2010 - Officials to weigh voting options; Hearing focuses on the changing election process, technology
Paper: The Record (Stockton, CA)
Title: Officials to weigh voting options; Hearing focuses on the changing election process, technology
Date: February 09, 2010
Author: Zachary K. Johnson, Record Staff Writer
STOCKTON - It's been nearly a decade since the 2000 presidential election and vote counting in Florida focused the country's attention on the elections systems that make up the engine of democracy.
On Monday, state and local election officials met with experts and industry representatives at a hearing in Sacramento to look at how the mechanism of voting has changed in the past 10 years as counties complied with new election laws and what should happen next to ensure accurate and secure elections.
The 2002 Help America Vote Act prompted many changes and created a "seller's market" as counties bought new systems, said Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives at Pew Center on the States. And the market is now very much in flux, with smaller vendors scaling back and large vendors growing, he said. At the same time, money to pay for further changes has become more scarce, and collectively there's no consensus on everything a voting system is supposed to be.
"We're not sure about what we're buying, we're not sure who we're buying technology from, and we're out of money," he said.
At the day long public hearing, participants talked about a need to change voting rules to keep pace with new technologies, but they also heard from an election official from King County in Washington, a state where nearly all counties have replaced polling places with a mail-in ballot system.
Systems vendors lamented the cost of certification, and a foundation advocated the development of publicly owned open-source technology behind elections.
"If something works, let's look at it," said San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters Austin Erdman, one of a handful of election officials from California counties on the panel.
In the meantime, building a new regulatory foundation can form the base for new technology and the future, he said. "Instead of dragging 20th-century laws, rules and regulations into the 21st century."
Voters in San Joaquin County have seen how wider shifts have changed the local landscape in the past decade. Touchscreen voting began after the county bought such machines from Diebold Election Systems in 2002. The machines cost $4.7 million. When the state decertified the machines in 2007, the county switched to paper ballots. The $800,000 cost included 400 voting booths and new machines to scan and count the ballots. The machines were from the same vendor, but Diebold's election wing had been changed to Premier Election Solutions Inc.
Last year, Election Systems and Software, Inc. took over Premier. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently launched an antitrust investigation.
A company representative at the hearing said ES&S would continue to support the equipment used by the county.
Erdman and other counties' election officials voiced concern about what it would cost to maintain newly acquired systems.
It's a lot more difficult than just replacing dried-up pens to mark ballots, Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin said. Replacing a broken screen costs more than buying a whole new unit, she said.
Vendors do amass spare parts to maintain existing systems, but the certification process creates expensive obstacles when certain spare parts become unavailable and require new fixes to take their place, said John Groh of ES&S. "The biggest challenge right now is the rules."
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