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Into Thin Air

Napa County voters worry that their votes may not be counted--ever

By Tara Treasurefield

There's no question that computers have dramatically transformed our way of life during the past few decades. Computers are a part of virtually every daily transaction we complete, from filling up at the local gas station to purchasing gorceries at the market to depositing funds and checking balances at the bank or online from home. So it seems natural to think that something as basic as registering the votes of citizens in the upcoming election would lend itself well to computerization.

However, as voters across the country have discovered, including those in Napa County--the only North Bay county that currently uses computerized touch-screen voting machines--such devices are fraught with problems that can undermine the democratic process. For well over a year, leading computer scientists have repeatedly warned that paperless electronic voting systems are risky. The central issue is that without paper there is no way for voters to verify the accuracy of their ballots and no way to conduct a meaningful audit of an election.

You mark a vote on the screen and--pffft! --it's gone into the thin air of cyberspace, with no way of knowing if it was actually recorded. In addition, at least four nationally recognized studies have exposed significant security issues with computerized voting systems. Napa County uses the AVC Edge by Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., one of the systems evaluated last year by Compuware, a computer consulting firm based in Michigan. In its report, Compuware revealed that every system it analyzed had "several security issues, which if left unmitigated would provide an opportunity for an attacker to disrupt the election process or throw the election results into question."

With the election only weeks away, critics of computerized voting say the best available alternative is to use an absentee ballot instead. That way, a written record of your vote is created and retained.

But as Napa County voters discovered in last March's primary, even that is no guarantee that all the votes will be counted accurately. In the March primary, absentee ballots were mismailed, misplaced, invalidated, lost and--according to an expert who testified during a postelection trial--even revised by someone other than the original voter.

That fact has left some Napa voters in a quandary. Which method of voting is safer: paperless touch screens or absentee ballots?

It's a question that has no clear-cut answer.

Napa County registrar of voters John Tuteur, who installed new security measures after his county's March primary, assures that touch screens and absentee ballots are equally safe. Since that controversial primary, Tuteur says he has no qualms about using the touch-screen machines. Still, he encourages voters who distrust the devices to vote using the absentee ballot.

But Napa businessman Lowell Downey has no intention of placing his vote in the memory banks of a machine. "I have a computer-driven business here, and I know the chances of failure," he says. "Hard drives fail, computers fail, information is lost. What if we lost a block of votes? I don't think we can risk committing the democratic process to computer technology without a paper trail."

Napa County contractor Glynn Barry will also vote absentee. Still bristling from problems he encountered with a Sequoia voting machine in the March primaries, Barry says, "I wanted to write in something that wasn't on the ballot. It was almost impossible. I'd try to spell something and a letter wouldn't come up. I whacked the machine a few times, and when that didn't help, I gave up."

Independent computer programmer Jeremiah Akin validates Barry's worst fears. Based in Southern California, Akin conducts workshops throughout the country demonstrating how simple it is to manipulate Sequoia Voting Systems software.

"Before an election, when few people are around, you can change the ballot definition so votes will be recorded incorrectly," he says. "Anyone who has access to the machines would be the biggest threat-- county employees and county contractors who have access to the machines or networks."

The opportunities for election fraud don't end there, as votes can also be manipulated during and after an election.

"Someone could override information in the database," Akin says. "Someone could put false information into the database. Someone could change one of the cards [where votes are recorded]. It would be very difficult for the public to check. It can be modified and changed back."

State officials in Nevada, recognizing the impossibility of meaningful recounts and audits without a printed record of every vote cast, contracted with Sequoia to add printers to the company's touch screens. As a result, the September primary in Nevada was backed up by a paper trail. "That's definitely a huge step in the right direction," Akin agrees.

Though Napa County slow-growth advocate Harold Kelly distrusts paperless voting machines, he'll use one in November. The reason? He lost all confidence in absentee ballots after the defeat of Supervisor Mike Rippey, an environmentalist, in the March primary, when, in addition to the mismailed and misplaced absentee ballots mentioned above, scanners also failed to count thousands of absentee ballots due to a calibration error by Sequoia personnel.

"If Supervisor Mike Rippey lost fair and square, that's one thing," Kelly says. "But if there was hanky-panky going on, I'm really shocked. I hope that wasn't the case."

After the primary, Rippey sued registrar of voters John Tuteur and Harold Moskowite, his opponent in the election, on election fraud charges. Rippey eventually lost the case on appeal.

Whether through malice or incompetence, Sequoia personnel appear to have created problems in several elections. For instance, according to the Napa County Elections Task Force report, Sequoia employees evidently miscalibrated equipment intended to count absentee ballots in their recent primary, resulting in thousands of those documents going unremarked. Similarly, the county clerk of Humboldt, Nev., reported that, due to an alleged error by Sequoia personnel who were on hand to assist in a September primary election, votes gathered from six precincts went uncounted until election officials discovered the problem. Nonetheless, Tuteur describes Sequoia personnel as "trusted vendors," and will use them again in November to set up and program voting equipment and help count the ballots.

All things considered, Akin urges all Napa County voters to use absentee ballots, particularly if they don't mail them in. "There are a lot of problems with absentee ballots," he says. "But you automatically cut down a lot of possibilities if you bring your ballot in to your county election department or precinct, especially on election day, when plenty of people are around and watching."

Seconding Akin's advice, Lowell Downey says, "We're not talking about going to the store and having a computer come up with the wrong price on your mozzarella. We're talking about your vote. We're talking about democracy."

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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