SPENCER MICHELS: Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, is one of six California counties where the American Civil Liberties Union claimed thousands of voters would be disenfranchised by the use of punch cards in the recall. Officials here have been preparing for two elections this fall.
In one room, touch-screen computer machines were being tested for use in municipal elections in November, but they were not quite ready for the recall. So in the next room workers were cleaning out punch card machines which were to be used in the recall. That election had been scheduled for October 7, just after it qualified for the ballot a few weeks ago. Punch cards have been banned in California, beginning in 2004. In the recall, several different systems were scheduled to be in use across the state. Santa Clara County elections Chief Jesse Durazo says the punch cards worked well for years.
JESSE DURAZO, Santa Clara County Registrar: California never had any problems that are-- quote-- "are associated with the Florida experience." But it became a political measure. The voters felt that in California that something should be done not to replicate Florida's experience.
SPENCER MICHELS: Santa Clara County was scheduled to start using its touch-screen machines in November; it purchased those machines at a cost of $20 million. They were paid for using federal money from the 2002 "Help America Vote" Act, which required voting officials to buy new technology. But many of those new voting machines-- touch screens that allow the voter to simply touch a candidate's name displayed on a computer screen-- have become as controversial as Florida's punch cards. Several states, including Florida, began using the touch screens last year. Some counties had problems with voters being given ballots for the wrong party. And poll workers' unfamiliarity with the equipment caused long delays. Critics contend that the national reaction to Florida's election mess has caused a stampede to use risky computerized systems where voter fraud is a distinct possibility. Kim Alexander is director of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.
KIM ALEXANDER: I think election officials for the most part are in over their heads with this new technology. This is very complicated stuff, and one basic rule of system security is the more complex a system is the less secure it is.
SPENCER MICHELS: Reporter: Election workers have been training senior citizens and others in their use. The machines are easily programmable in several languages and provide an audio ballot for the blind, requirements of the new federal law. These machines, argues Santa Clara County's Durazo, are much easier than printed paper when dealing with different ballots in different precincts.
JESSE DURAZO: You could have seven parties and four languages-- there's a multiple of 28. And then you add all the different ballot types. It just starts getting a significant amount of paper that weighs in the tons, and that is really something that is old world. We really want to move into the new world, and it's called electronic voting.
SPOKESMAN: Now you're the vote, insert it please.
SPENCER MICHELS: But electronic votes exist only in the computer's memory. Without paper ballots or some paper record, critics charge that a computer malfunction or a deliberate attempt to fix an election could go undetected.
KIM ALEXANDER: When the voter casts a ballot on a touch screen, they see their choices on the screen, but they don't know that the machine actually recorded their votes the way the voter intended, and if you want to give voters that bit of confidence, you need to have the machine generate a paper backup of the voter's ballot that the voter has the right to inspect before leaving the polls.
SPENCER MICHELS: Alameda county has been using touch-screen machines for the past year, and registrar of voters Bradley Clark says the machines do provide a paper trail, although not a paper copy of each ballot.
BRADLEY CLARK: There is a paper trail because the system not only captures the aggregate vote total, but it captures an image of what each individual voter has done.
SPENCER MICHELS: But that printout, critics say, could be deceptive, unless the voter himself can verify that is how he voted. SRI computer scientist Peter Neumann, a pioneering computer security specialist, says touch- screen voting can look accurate but may not be. He says someone who wants to fix an election can build in a second, unseen system or program that can produce fraudulent results.
PETER NEUMANN: The second system has been programmed to take the correct results and change them, and so you've added just enough votes, switched them around, and now your second system is the one that actually is used to produce the results of the election.
SPENCER MICHELS: Could you write a program that would make it do that?
PETER NEUMANN: Trivially.
SPENCER MICHELS: Really?
PETER NEUMANN: Sure.
SPENCER MICHELS: Very simply?
PETER NEUMANN: That's easy to do.
SPENCER MICHELS: Neumann says there have always been attempts to fix elections. An example often cited is Lyndon Johnson's 1948 election to the Senate from Texas. His supporters, sheriff's deputies, boldly showed off precinct 13's ballot box, that they had presumably stuffed.
SPOKESMAN: You start this just by hitting start of.
SPENCER MICHELS: But that can't happen with touch-screen machines, says Deborah Seiler, West Coast representative for Diebold, which provides the machines used in alameda county.
SPENCER MICHELS: How do you know that this machine is actually recording the fact that you voted for Robert Frost for poet laureate? How do you know the machine isn't fooling you and voting for Carl Sandberg instead?
DEBORAH SEILER, Diebold Election Systems: Before every single election, there are extensive what we call logic and accuracy test procedures that are followed. And Alameda County follows a very rigorous pre-election testing process to test that very thing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University released a study this summer that indicates the software in some Diebold voting machines "had significant and wide- reaching security vulnerabilities" and that "a malevolent developer could easily make changes to the code." That prompted Maryland and Ohio to put orders for the machines on hold. Seiler says the Hopkins study was flawed.
DEBORAH SEILER: They made assumptions about this being like a personal computer, which it isn't. They made assumptions about this being hooked up to the Internet, which it's never hooked up to the Internet. Neither this machine is hooked up to the Internet, nor is the ballot tabulation server hooked up to the Internet.
SPENCER MICHELS: Computer programmers dispute that and say the machines can be rigged in other ways, including last- minute changes. More than half of California counties, including San Mateo, are using a high-tech form of paper ballot called optical scan. The voter simply fills in the ballot with a pen, and then feeds the paper into an optical scanning device, which reads and tabulates it. Chief elections officer Warren Slocum says this is what his county is using for the recall. Still, he will likely replace this system with a $6 million touch-screen system, even though he is wary of it, in order to meet federal requirements for blind voters.
WARREN SLOCUM: There's a crisis of confidence that's bubbling beneath the surface, I think, in California and also in America. It started with the collapse of the last presidential election, and here we are four years later nearly with a whole national debate about the security of touch-screen voting systems.
SPENCER MICHELS: The touch screens were supposed to quell that controversy, but instead, Slocum says, they have exacerbated it.
WARREN SLOCUM: What's important is that California voters and American voters all across the country and all the states have confidence that their vote is counted the way that they intended it to be counted.
SPENCER MICHELS: No matter how the various systems perform, by next March, one in three votes cast in California will likely be on touch screens, since they are the only machines that currently meet federal standards for disabled voters.