E-voting problems drive voters away

Scary, scary stuff. How can the government continue with this e-voting nonsense?

Thousands of voters in two of California’s largest, electronic-voting counties were forced to cast paper ballots and some were driven from the polls by a confluence of hardware problems, poor poll worker training and confusion over open-primary voting.

At about one in every six polling places in Alameda County, touchscreen voting ground to a temporary halt, and poll workers doled out paper provisional ballots to voters in dozens of precincts.

Voting technicians scrambled to get electronic voting running again, and troubleshooters hurried to keep precincts supplied in paper ballots. But paper ballots ran out in several precincts, and poll workers told voters to come back later.

Some did. Some didn’t.

It was a similar story in San Diego County.

State elections officials could not say Tuesday evening whether the breakdowns and provisional balloting would have a telling impact on the timing and results of Tuesday’s elections.

Alameda County Registrar of Voters Bradley Clark said counting of the provisional ballots could take a couple of weeks. Clark said he “would have no idea” Tuesday night how many provisional ballots were cast.

“At this point, we don’t have all of the facts,” said Doug Stone, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, late Tuesday night.

Most Californians voted smoothly, with isolated irregularities and glitches in several counties. At least some Republican voters in GOP-dominated Orange County were bedeviled by Democratic ballots popping up on their touchscreens.

Yet voters in Alameda and San Diego counties ran into widespread problems, not with touchscreen voting machines, per se, but with voter-card encoders recently supplied by e-voting giant Diebold Election Systems.

Poll workers use the encoders, which are technically known as precinct control modules, to activate the smart cards that voters insert into touchscreen voting machines. The encoders load a specific ballot onto the voter card, based on a voter’s residence in certain political districts and their party registration.

The encoders had undergone testing by at least one laboratory but had never been federally certified. Based on its own consultant’s testing of the devices, California’s Secretary of State issued a one-time certification for the encoders, good only for Tuesday’s primary.

Alameda County poll workers phoned in at least 200 voting problems in the first hours of voting, the majority of them with voter-card encoders.

“This happened all over the county,” said assistant registrar of voters Elaine Ginnold.

In the county’s third major election using touchscreens, many voters said they were delighted with the ease of voting, though worried about the security and accuracy of electronic voting.

Voting activists said it was discouraging that one of California’s first e-voting counties still had trouble running its elections after its third statewide election on touchscreens.

“This is not just a glitch, this is a lot more serious than a couple of frozen screens at a couple of polling (places),” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “Our elections officials are in over their heads with this equipment, and they’re relying on their cadre of pollworkers and their vendors to do everything perfectly.”

Memory chips were loose in some of the encoders, Ginnold said, preventing their operation until technicians talked poll workers through adjusting the modules. When other encoders booted up, poll workers were confronted with a perplexing screen that none of them had seen in training.

“We think it was a result of some encorders not having a full charge,” said Diebold spokesman David Bear. “What it resulted in was a delay in opening in some of the precincts.”

Roughly 125 precincts got back up and running within an hour or two of the opening of the polls, according to Diebold and local elections officials. But they missed much of the morning rush hour.

At least 43 precincts took longer. At one San Leandro church, poll workers scrapped one encoder and used a backup machine for 15 minutes before it, too, stopped working.

Confusion was rampant on voting in the modified open primaries.

Poll workers failed to post notices or otherwise inform unaffiliated voters that they had to request a Democratic or Republican ballot in order to vote in those primaries.

Other voters complained that certain measures didn’t appear on their ballots, likely due to encoding errors.

“My husband and I were voting together and I got done — I thought — and turned in my card, but then I saw my husband was still voting,” said Berkeley’s Sylvia Meridian. “It turned out he had all these measures that I didn’t have. And we’re registered with the same party.”

Poll workers there at Berkeley Friends meeting hall on Vine Street reported at least three similar complaints and said they had contacted the registrar of voters. In Meridian’s case, they checked to make sure she had used the machine properly, then told her to call the registrar, too.

“I called again and they told me there had been so many complaints they couldn’t call them all back,” Meridian said. “The use of these electronic voting machines is very frightening to me. There’s no paper trail. Those who know how to break into computers could change the vote. People need to know what’s going on and how our rights are not being protected.”

“I understand the voters’ frustration, but there’s only so much we can do,” said a precinct worker who asked his name not be used. “We’re not happy with the way the registrar has been dealing with us either. The people who came out this morning to get us started didn’t seem to know what they were talking about.”

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown saw one Democrat issued a Republican ballot and had to insist that she be issued a new ballot.

Voters who did not have the mayor watching over them said poll workers would not let them void mistaken ballots and vote their preference.

Lee Elfenbeing expected to see Democratic candidates on his ballot and protested to Braun Street poll workers without success.

“I turn to them and they said, ‘Whup, it’s too late,’” Elfenbeing said.

Brown also watched poll workers give an English ballot to a Cantonese-speaking voter. A young woman happened into the polling place and translated the ballot for the voter.

“I think the electronic voting systems have to be looked at really closely,” Brown said.

Other voters were not informed that their polling place had been moved. Brown piled them into his city-issue Lincoln Town Car with his dog, Dharma, and drove them to their polling place.

“I was on full alert,” the mayor said.