Election security that works

Pub date October 3, 2007
WriterSteven Hill
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION These are anxious times for election security and voting equipment. The system is truly broken, starting at the federal level with a lack of national standards, a chaotic testing regimen, untrustworthy vendors, a revolving door between the industry and government regulators, and a decentralized hodgepodge of election administration from coast to coast.

Into that abyss has stepped Debra Bowen, California’s secretary of state. Many of us have supported her call to make elections more secure, and Bowen came into office with the best of intentions. Yet her staff’s inexperience and misreading of the bigger picture have caused more chaos than necessary and now threaten to undermine San Francisco’s November election.

Bowen’s office is concerned that San Francisco’s precinct voting equipment can’t adequately read certain colors of ink. But precinct voters are given a special dark black pen to use to prevent any problems, so the tiny handful of voters potentially affected would be those who (1) drop the precinct pen and (2) use their own pen, which (3) doesn’t have black or dark blue ink.

Even for those voters, though, the voting equipment has an additional safeguard: its optical-scan technology includes an error notification that rejects a ballot with an undervote, such as that caused by invisible ink, and the voter is given a chance to re-mark the ballot. This defect has existed since the equipment was introduced in 1999, yet the secretary has presented no evidence that this has caused any problems.

Nevertheless, Bowen has imposed an excessively draconian condition — namely, that precinct ballots cannot be included as part of the official tally nor even included as preliminary results. The only results available on election night will be the handful of early absentee ballots processed prior to the election, and all ballots must be counted on another piece of equipment.

Ironically, this order undermines the very election security Bowen claims to be addressing. As Bev Harris of Blackbox Voting put it, "Anything that doesn’t get counted on election night is at high risk for fraud." That’s just one example; Bowen has imposed other conditions that will affect ranked-choice voting but reflect little understanding of how RCV works.

What’s really going on is that San Francisco is caught in a battle royal between the secretary of state and the city’s vendor, Election Systems and Software. Bowen is understandably upset with ES&S for recent transgressions, yet in response she has overreacted, ordering interventions that are not narrowly tailored to the specific problem.

Unfortunately, Bowen’s interventions to date, including her top-to-bottom review of all voting equipment in California, reflect a misunderstanding of the bigger picture. Bowen assumes that if she cracks down, the vendors will get better, and so will their equipment. There’s no evidence that will actually happen.

Besides appropriate interventions, what’s really needed is a new and bold approach. The state of California should become its own vendor, designing its own public-interest voting equipment using open-source software and the latest innovations. Los Angeles County has already created its own equipment, as have other countries.

If California became its own vendor, creating the best equipment available, it would put pressure on private vendors to step up to the new standard or lose contracts. This is the type of bold effort that Secretary Bowen should be leading, rather than venting her understandable frustration with private vendors at counties like San Francisco. San Franciscans should contact her at secretary.bowen@sos.ca.gov to express their deep concerns.

Steven Hill

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation.