SAN FRANCISCO — Postage rates. Poll-worker punctuality. Power failures. Paper jams. Software meltdowns. The electorate’s technological acumen. Even Hugo Chavez and Venezuela.
These, and many, many other things are keeping election officials awake at night, along with politicians and voting rights advocates in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
“If anyone thinks you are going to have a perfect election, they aren’t thinking rationally,” said Kern County Registrar Ann Barnett, who experienced firsthand an imperfect election in June when voters in the Southern California county were urged to delay casting ballots until an electronic voting machine glitch could be fixed later in the day.
Election officials throughout the state are bracing for bigger and more complicated problems than usual as a new federal law takes hold that mandates that every county have at least some electronic voting machines on hand.
What’s more, four of California’s 58 counties _ Alameda, Santa Cruz, Nevada and San Mateo _ will have entirely new voting systems in place, heightening anxiety among poll workers and voters nervous about the change.
“A lot of the equipment is challenging to use,” said Kim Alexander, president of the watchdog California Voter Foundation. “There’s going to be problems.”
Registrars are always concerned about the performance and reliability of the tens of thousands of poll workers recruited and trained to work on Tuesday. And since the overwhelming majority are elderly, county election officials are concerned they won’t cotton to the new electronic machines.
“Will the poll workers show up Will the polling places open on time” Alameda County acting Registrar Dave MacDonald said of his major concerns. “I’m concerned because the style of ballot is different than what voters faced in June.”
Four companies will deploy electronic voting machines throughout the state on Tuesday, including Alameda-based Sequoia Voting Systems Inc.
Sequoia is being investigated by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States because it is a wholly owned subsidiary of a company owned by three Venezuelan residents. The federal government is looking into whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s leftist government could wield influence over Sequoia, allegations the company denies.
Even before the Sequoia investigation was made public, privacy advocates and computer experts were questioning the security and reliability of electronic voting machines. Though many counties still rely mostly on paper ballots, all are required to have some form of electronic machines available.
State officials have warned the 21 counties using Sequoia equipment of the potential for voter fraud because of a button on the back of the machines that resets the equipment, meaning a person could potentially vote multiple times. Pushing the yellow button would require reaching way around to the back of the machine and triggers a beeping noise. The state advised local elections officials to keep a close watch and post warnings that tampering with voting equipment is a crime.
“Serious questions have arisen about the accuracy and reliability of new electronic voting machines, including concerns that they can be susceptible to fraud and computer hacking unless proper security measures are taken,” Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement last week. “It is imperative that Congress does everything it can to help ensure that votes cast by American citizens are recorded accurately.”
Feinstein said she plans to introduce legislation tightening security requirements after the election.
Electronic voting is also one of the few hot button issues in a normally sleepy down ticket race for Secretary of State, pitting Republican incumbent Bruce McPherson and the Democratic challenger, state Sen. Debra Bowen.
Bowen argues that electronic voting systems McPherson has approved for use in California are still too vulnerable, a charge the incumbent dismissed.
“California has the strictest voting standards in the nation,” Secretary of State spokeswoman Ashley Giovannettone said. “No system is certified for use in California that is not accurate and reliable.”
The Secretary of State has ordered counties to have enough backup paper ballots on hand in case of electronic voting meltdowns. Elections officials will fan out across the state on election night and randomly test the accuracy of voting machines and observers will be dispatched to 31 counties. Much of the upheaval and anxiety can be attributed to the provisions of the new federal law that kicked in this year that requires, among many other vote-counting upgrades, that disabled voters be allowed to vote independently.
“These are the most sweeping changes in the election process in our nation’s history,” said Secretary of State spokeswoman Giovannettone.
Already, minor problems with absentee ballots have cropped up around the state.
A majority of the state’s 16 million registered voters are expected to vote by mail in the November election. But the ballots in many counties are so big that election officials fear some may be returned for insufficient postage.
Other absentee snags hit San Mateo County, where residents complained they had yet to receive their ballots two weeks before the election. And some Ventura County voters received incorrect ballots and then were mailed the wrong warning letters. So far, 439 voters in Sacramento County have reported problems with their ballots.
“I think that both locally and nationwide we are in for some interesting times on the seventh,” said Yolo County Registrar Freddie Oakley. “Unprecedented numbers of jurisdictions are deploying brand new equipment.”
In Yolo County, for instance, Oakley said newly delivered electronic voting machines for use by the disabled were programmed only in Vietnamese when they arrived. The machines’ manufacturer Hart Intercivic fixed the glitches and Oakley said she has hired 60 University of California, Davis students to help voters use the voting technology correctly Tuesday.
“I always expect problems,” Oakley said.