As Revealed by California State Senate Hearings on Transparency in Elections
'Warts on Parade' as Voting Registrars Discuss Problems with Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S and Many Other Electronic Voting Systems...
By Brad Friedman on 1/21/2006, 4:40pm PT  
"Turn around and look at all the people behind you," Bowen said gesturing at a gallery full of voting activists. "These are all people who care about transparency in the elections process. It's not about me knowing or you knowing, it's about anybody else in the state of California who cares about elections to assess for themselves what's going on."
-- "Officials assess e-voting glitches: Confidence in electronic systems may be wavering" Oakland Tribune, 1/19/06

Such was the sometimes contentious, sometimes exasperating atmosphere, apparently, in Sacramento this week when State Senator Debra Bowen, transparent election champion and Democratic candidate for Secretary of State convened a hearing on the current electoral mess in the Golden State. The hearing was held by the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee which she chairs.

County Election Registrars from all over the state were called to give a report on how things are going (not well, apparently) and Election Integrity advocates filled the gallery to witness the goings on.

There was actually quite a bit of coverage by the media, some better than others, but overall, it's nice to see an open forum for oversight and discussion of the state of democracy in this state. All the while, so much that is involved with the most fundamental element of democracy --- the vote --- has been done in secret corridors of power, darkened Boards of Election back rooms, Private Corporation board rooms, and of course, inside the uninspected, none-of-your-business software of completely untrustworthy, unaccountable electronic voting machines.

Articles hit late this week on Wednesday's hearings in the LA Times, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Vallejo Times Herald and elsewhere. While the "facts" offered by some of the reports were at times less than accurate, we note that it's remarkable how many Journalists deign to cover such issues when they are granted "legitimacy" by an officially sanctioned Government Inquiry. (Just a thought to those of you who actually get paid for this sort of thing, from someone who doesn't...but we've long advocated Journalists cover what is newsworthy. Not only what politicians have instructed them to be newsworthy.)

Let's take a look then at some of the coverage, including our own on-the-air conversation on Friday evening with Bowen...

From Ian Hoffman of Oakland Tribune who has been particularly good in reporting on all of these matters for some time:

SACRAMENTO Ś As virtually every county in California scrambles for new voting machinery to use in the June elections, the last thing elections officials want to talk about is flaws.

But the warts were on parade Wednesday:

-Sequoia Voting Systems' computers don't reliably add in certain rare primary votes.

-Election Systems & Software's computers sometimes count more ballots than voters and can record the wrong choice for voters with long fingernails.

-Optical scanners made by Diebold Election Systems can be hacked (and so possibly can scanners sold by other vendors.)

Hoffman goes on to suggest that some of the California registrars were less than pleased to be there, discussing their work at all, in public.

One particularly clueless registrar, Debbie Hench from San Joaquin County, made a particular ass of herself by blaming the process of fighting for transparent, reliable elections as the culprit for the plummetting confidence in elections by the electorate:

"These meetings are tearing the (voters') confidence apart. They're saying every system is bad," complained Debbie Hench, San Joaquin County registrar of voters, in a legislative hearing.

"I'm sorry you feel scrutiny and transparency is bad," said Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, chairwoman of the Senate Elections and Reapportionment Committee. But, she said, making a clean breast of voting problems is essential for fixing them and regaining the voter trust that has been in decline since the 2000 presidential elections.

"If you just tell people, 'Trust us, we'll make it all go away,' that's not the way you establish confidence," said Bowen, a Democratic contender for secretary of state.

We spoke with Bowen on Christine Craft's Sacramento radio program Friday evening, and she confirmed Hench's incredibly daft comments. Here's the MP3 from the half-hour or so we did together on Craft's show if you're interested.

As well, a BRAD BLOG commenter, Paula Woodward, posted a few interesting impressions after attending the hearing, pointing out yet another county registrar, Ira Rosenthal of Solano County, who seemed to be equally clueless. Woodward quotes Rosenthal's "blame the messenger" comments aimed at Bowen during the hearings, charging her with "whipping up hysteria among the voters."

Damn that Debra Bowen and her quest for honest, transparent elections! What must she be thinking?!

The LA Times, who has failed to report almost anything on these matters, decided to get in the game this week to point out that "Electronic devices in 53 counties...are still not certified for use in the June primary."

They also point out that "Problems have arisen throughout California and across the country since electronic voting machines came into widespread use in 2004." Not that you'd know it from their coverage (or lack thereof) since 2004.

The report continues to describe the disastrous state of affairs across the entire state.

Seventeen California counties are relying on machines that proved vulnerable to computer hacking; software glitches in machines used in another 11 counties prompted McPherson's office to send a letter to a manufacturer in December threatening to pull certification if the bugs weren't fixed.

At Wednesday's hearing, officials also revealed errors in ballot counts in Solano and Merced counties during the November special election, and said Orange County's ballots contain a serial number making it possible to tie the ballot to an individual voter Ś a violation of privacy requirements.
Also discussed were Diebold voting machines already bought by 17 California counties and complaints about that system's weaknesses. The machines are still unapproved by the state.

Over at the SF Chronicle, John Wildermuth reported one registrar as saying, "At some point, some counties may have to make a decision about who they'd rather be sued by."

Indeed, that assessment be a reality for Boards of Election around the country before long. And for good reason.

However, Wildermuth errantly forwards the impression that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 now requires at least one electronic voting machine in every precinct when he writes, "the law also requires states to provide, by this year, at least one voting machine in every polling place that could be used by disabled voters and non-English speakers."

That's simply not true. Had Wildermuth said "at least one voting device" or "system" we might have let it slide, as Greg Moberly's report for Vallejo Times Herald was much more egregiously incorrect. He reported "Federal standards set under the Help America Vote Act require a touch-screen voting machine this year for disabled voters at all polling places."

While we're pleased to see Moberly covering the topic (and it's not the first time he's done so), it would be nice if he got such an important fact straight before reporting it to readers. Moberly can be emailed here: or called here: 707-553-6833, if you'd like to report to him (politely please) so he is clear on this important matter for any future reports.