Could electronic voting mar election?
By Rachel Konrad
RIVERSIDE, Calif. County election officials have been among the staunchest advocates of electronic voting, insisting that computers are as reliable as paper ballots. But a dispute over a razor-thin election here suggests that important electronic data might not exist, making recounts impossible in many states.
Linda Soubirous, a candidate for the Riverside County board of supervisors, lost a chance for a runoff by fewer than 50 reported votes. When Soubirous asked to look at the computer disks and other electronic records kept during the election, county officials refused.
Critics of electronic voting say that what happened during the March primary in the sprawling county east of Los Angeles should be a wake-up call for the 50 million Americans eligible to vote electronically in November.
Undocumented software glitches, hackers, mechanical errors or deleted ballots in only a few counties could have huge implications in a presidential election likely to be a cliffhanger. More than 100,000 paperless terminals have been installed across the nation, particularly in California, Maryland, Georgia and the battleground states of Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.
"This isn't about Riverside it's about our nation," said Soubirous, who is suing the county. Soubirous' case is prompting demands for more transparency into election software. Like other manufacturers, Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., which sold $14 million in equipment to Riverside in 1999, uses proprietary software and operates with little federal oversight.
The case comes less than two months after Florida officials revealed that audit logs from the contested 2002 gubernatorial primary were lost in computer crashes. Officials in Miami-Dade County said later that backup copies of the data were simply misplaced, but the mishap stoked suspicion coast to coast.
"Right now, there's basically no way to know how accurate an election was, and that's not good enough for a public office," said Jeremiah Akin, a Riverside computer programmer. "We should all be very skeptical."
Soubirous' case hinges on vote tallies at Riverside's central counting office the evening of March 2. The registrar publishes results on printouts and online, continuously updating them. In the first printout, at 8:13 p.m., incumbent Bob Buster had 47 percent of the vote shy of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Updates from the Sequoia AVC Edge touchscreens then stalled for more than an hour. During that time, a Soubirous supporter Art Cassel spotted two Sequoia employees typing on a county computer. When updates resumed about 9:15 p.m., Buster's lead had widened to 50.2 percent of the vote. After 49,196 votes were logged, Buster finished 49 votes above 50 percent, narrowly avoiding a runoff.
Soubirous paid more than $1,600 for a recount. A re-examination of paper absentee ballots found 276 more votes, narrowing the margin for a runoff to 36 votes. But most of the voting was electronic, and Townsend reproduced only the vote total for each machine. Critics consider that meaningless because it doesn't show whether glitches or hacks caused misrecorded votes.