California Primary Tests Electronic Voting System

June 15, 2006 at 8:58 AM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Kim Alexander is looking for trouble…

KIM ALEXANDER, The California Voter Foundation: Are you the polling inspector?

SPENCER MICHELS: … at the polling place.

KIM ALEXANDER: Hi, I’m Kim Alexander.

SPENCER MICHELS: As director of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, she spent Primary Election Day trying to find out how well new touch-screen electronic voting machines were working.

KIM ALEXANDER: And what do you think about using the touch-screen voting machines?

VOTER: I think it’s wonderful myself.

SPENCER MICHELS: While some voters told her they liked them, Alexander was dismayed by security problems she found.

KIM ALEXANDER: The other polling place I went to had a little sticker there.

POLLING PLACE WORKER: Yes, one of my workers pulled them off. I had it written it down.

KIM ALEXANDER: Oh, how come they pulled it off?

POLLING PLACE WORKER: They didn’t know which one they were talking off. It looks like they got the wrong sticker.

KIM ALEXANDER: Oh, which sticker were they supposed to take off?

At this polling place here this morning, they had trouble getting the machines started, and one poll worker told me that they had an anxiety attack and they started tearing all the seals off all of the machines. And three out of the four machines in this polling place do not have those security seals on them right now.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those security seals are designed to prevent tampering by anyone, and that’s a concern now that much of the country has switched to electronic voting machines.

The switch was made in response to problems voters had with punch-card voting systems in the disputed and protracted 2000 Florida presidential election. Two years later, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and appropriated $3.8 billion to buy new voting machines and to otherwise improve elections.

KIM ALEXANDER: A lot of states rushed out and bought new electronic-voting machines thinking that that would solve all of their problems. What we found is that those systems are not only more expensive than paper-voting systems, they’re also less transparent and they’re hardly glitch-free.

Seniors had trouble using machines

Bruce McPherson
Secretary of State, California
This is the biggest change we've seen in elections process in the history of the nation, not election law, but the elections process.

SPENCER MICHELS: At this polling place in Stockton, California, some seniors had trouble using the touch screens and needed help from poll workers.

DON LEBLANC, Poll Worker: Vote for secretary of state, and then we'll come back to your write-in. If you don't do it within two minutes, the machine shuts down.

SPENCER MICHELS: What do you see this time with these machines?

DON LEBLANC: Confusion.

SPENCER MICHELS: What do you mean?

DON LEBLANC: Most of the people who are coming here are elderly and they're intimidated by the machines.

SPENCER MICHELS: The people will get used to the machines and the bugs will get worked out, says California's Secretary of State Bruce McPherson.

BRUCE MCPHERSON, Secretary of State, California: This is the biggest change we've seen in elections process in the history of the nation, not election law, but the elections process. And there was a need to do it after that Florida election, with the hanging chads and butterfly ballots and so forth.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the heart of the most recent controversy over computerized touch-screen machines is the security of memory cards which store the ballots and votes inside the machine.

Last month in Utah, a computer scientist named Harri Hursti investigated the security of a particular machine made by Diebold Election Systems. He found that hackers could reprogram the memory cards to make the machines either completely shut down or throw votes to a different candidate.

David Jefferson is a computer scientist who works at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and independently reviewed Hursti's work for California's secretary of state.

DAVID JEFFERSON, Computer Scientist: What Mr. Hursti discovered in Utah is the most serious vulnerability that we've ever seen in a voting system. This particular vulnerability is serious enough that you can affect multiple machines from a single attack. That's what makes it so dangerous.

I can't talk about in any more detail than that because we're trying to keep the technical details of this vulnerability secret until the problem is fixed.

Fears of hackers in the system

SPENCER MICHELS: Mark Radke, marketing director for Diebold, says it's not possible to infect multiple machines and the problem is being exaggerated.

MARK RADKE, Diebold Election Systems: I think a very minimal issue is being sensationalized, to be blunt. It's a situation where a lot of the procedures, a lot of the layers of protection involved with electronic voting that you see in every jurisdiction are being ignored.

And, of course, the units are stored in locked enclosures. There's testing before every election, and also each and every one of the units is tagged with a security audit tag after it's tested to ensure that no tampering takes place.

SPENCER MICHELS: In San Joaquin County, the registrar of voters says the security procedures she has in place make it virtually impossible for a hacker to get into her system.

DEBORAH HENCH, Registrar of voters, San Joaquin County: You're going to have to break into my warehouse before we deploy. You're going to have to change 1,660 units. You're going to have to do it all within about an hour or two, because my alarm is going off somewhere along the line and we expect the police department to be there shortly.

We send our database to the secretary of state before Election Day, and then we have to send another copy afterwards to show that they can compare it and see that nothing's been changed.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the June election, California enforced for the first time procedures to ensure their votes were correctly recorded, including a requirement that voters be able to look at their electronic votes on a paper printout.


Mandated manual recount of ballots

David Jefferson
Computer Scientist
I'm more concerned about other states that don't have a voter-verified paper trail, don't have a manual recount procedure, or perhaps are not even well-informed about the issues.

SPENCER MICHELS: In addition, state law mandates a manual recount of 1 percent of the ballots, which is impossible to do without a paper trail. The secretary of state says the new rules work.

BRUCE MCPHERSON: I established the strictest voting procedures and voting system procedures in the nation. As the secretary of state of California, I feel very confident that our votes are going to be counted accurately.

SPENCER MICHELS: But on Election Day, it wasn't clear that poll workers understood that voters were supposed to look at the paper printout.

DON LEBLANC: Every time you vote for one, you get this.

SPENCER MICHELS: Don LeBlanc manned the polls in Stockton.

Will they get to look at the paper trail to see if they've voted correctly?

DON LEBLANC: Well, you look on the computer screen.

SPENCER MICHELS: But not the paper itself?

DON LEBLANC: No, that's for the computer -- that's for the people at the office.


POLLING PLACE WORKER: You say you've finished voting?

VOTER: Yes, I'm finished, yes.

POLLING PLACE WORKER: OK, just put "next."

SPENCER MICHELS: When California's protections are enforced, computer scientist David Jefferson thinks they're effective, but he's worried about states that don't have them.

DAVID JEFFERSON: I'm more concerned about other states that don't have a voter-verified paper trail, don't have a manual recount procedure, or perhaps are not even well-informed about the issues.

Voting activists are not convinced

Megan Matson
Mainstreet Moms
We've got to go back to the future and have paper ballots, optiscan with audits, or hand-counted, so that we can all trust that we're electing who we elect.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many voting activists are not convinced electronic voting can be made safe. They've staged protests from Washington, D.C., to Point Reyes Station, California. Megan Matson, founder of Mainstreet Moms, favors a paper-based system that is scanned optically and counted at the polling place.

MEGAN MATSON, Mainstreet Moms: We've got to go back to the future and have paper ballots, optiscan with audits, or hand-counted, so that we can all trust that we're electing who we elect.

SPENCER MICHELS: Warren Stewart is with Vote Trust USA.

WARREN STEWART, Vote Trust USA: No one can observe the counting of votes on an electronic-voting machine. It's as if they took the ballots, went into a dark room, and came out and told us what the results are, and we simply have to trust them.

MARK RADKE: There's a small group of vocal individuals that want to use another type of technology, and that would probably be going back to paper. And we all know what that means, as far as going back to the Florida debacle of 2000.

SPENCER MICHELS: Alameda County, where there was a closely-contested race for mayor, did go back to almost all paper ballots. Voters here used the optical scan in the primary.

The county had bought new electronic touch screens after federal money became available but discovered they could not be fitted with a paper trail device, as required by California law. As a consequence, 4,000 machines sat out the election in a warehouse, decertified by the state.

DAVE MACDONALD, Registrar of Voters, Alameda County: They can be used in other states. They can't be used in California because they don't have a paper audit trail.

SPENCER MICHELS: Dave MacDonald, Alameda County's acting registrar of voters who personally helped check ballots, had to borrow the system from San Diego County.

And, in terms of using paper ballots as opposed to the Diebold machines or to any touch-screen machines?

DAVE MACDONALD: You know, I think they're both accurate, but we've been processing a lot of paper ballots today. And I will tell you this: As I go through those paper ballots, I see a lot of errors made on the ballot itself. People vote for two candidates when they should have only voted for one. If you were using a touch screen, that wouldn't be allowed. You wouldn't be able to cast your ballot.

SPENCER MICHELS: Handling all the paper ballots was a big chore for county workers. Nevertheless, the board of supervisors, under pressure from some activists, decided to buy its own paper ballot system.

POLLING PLACE WORKER: Precinct Number 34, 4,200, 23 provisional ballots.

SPENCER MICHELS: More than a week after the election, workers were still counting paper votes, including these provisional ballots, in a race that remains too close to call.

While some jurisdictions like Alameda County are reverting to paper, nearly 40 percent of Americans who will vote in the November midterm elections will vote on the still controversial electronic touch-screen machines.