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Voting-machine skeptic takes state election helm

Anxious time is just about to begin for the two interest groups that have done more than anyone else in recent years to make Californians feel uncertain about the integrity of their elections.

Those two groups: The makers of electronic voting machines of various types, many of whose devices have been shown to be both hackable and problematic in other ways. And county voter registrars who bought those machines largely with many millions of dollars derived from the federal Help America Vote Act, which was more concerned about speed of conversion to new technologies than whether they were trustworthy.

Now comes Democrat Debra Bowen, elected last fall and just now about to move into her new job as secretary of state, California's top elections officer. As a state senator from Marina del Rey for the last eight years, Bowen was the Legislature's leading skeptic of new-fangled voting machines and their bells and whistles.

Her appointed predecessor and defeated autumn opponent, the former Republican state Sen. Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz, was anything but a skeptic, certifying virtually any machine any county registrar wanted to buy and imposing questionable checks on their performance.

Those easygoing days are over for machine makers like Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Sequoia Voting Systems and others, and for the registrars who bought their products, often under tight federal deadlines to do something.

"We are going to do a top to bottom review of every voting system in use anywhere in California," Bowen said in an interview. "Yes, I would consider decertifying machines that my predecessor approved. Unfortunately, we've spent a lot of money on equipment that's not ready for prime time. Any Fortune 500 company would have sent those machines back with a letter saying they just don't do what they're supposed to."

How bad is the current generation of voting machines? Well, California lucked out for the most part last fall, not falling prey to the worst malfunctions and dicey behavior of the machines. But in one Texas county, ES&S machines counted each vote twice. Plus, incidents of ES&S devices "flipping" votes from the intended recipient to another were reported in Missouri and Florida.

Meanwhile, the rear of Sequoia devices was found to bear a yellow button that could be pushed to cast as many votes as anyone wanted on the machine.

Then there are the notorious "sleepovers," where precinct officials in some parts of California picked up voting machines as much as three weeks before the election and kept them in garages, closets or wherever they pleased until the vote began. These machine sojourns became a cause celebre last June, when some activists questioned whether machines could have been hacked just enough to give a special congressional election in the San Diego suburbs to Republican Brian Bilbray over Democrat Francine Busby.

"I believe the sleepovers are illegal," said Bowen, an attorney. "If a system is designed so it can't be used without sitting in someone's garage for two weeks, we should not be using that system. We could fix this by using a bonded delivery service like Brinks to deliver machines to polling places at a set time."

In short, the voting machine status quo will not be lasting long in the nascent Bowen era.

The new elections chief also will be going to the Legislature with a plan to make recounts easier in close races or where there have been machine problems. Today, the preliminary loser in any vote must pledge to pay all costs if a recount doesn't overturn the preliminary conclusion. This can cost upward of $50,000 in a congressional race, and most candidates don't have that much money left after Election Day. So there have been no recounts in California since the state set a requirement for voting machines to produce re-countable paper trails at all elections.

Bowen recognizes a paper trail is worthless unless it's usable.

"I think $50,000 to do a recount where it might be merited is a tiny price to pay for democracy and to keep people from saying 'Forget about the election; they'll never count our votes anyway,'" she said. So she'll support at least a partial public subsidy of recounts, where they appear justified.

All this means is Bowen's attitude is far more aggressive than that of any recent predecessor, which explains today's anxiety among those who have rendered election integrity questionable in California and elsewhere.

Elias is author of the book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." Send comments to thomas.elias@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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