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A Data Punch voting machine with ballot. Courtesy: Douglas W. Jones

REPLACING OLD MACHINES

One such local official is Ernie Hawkins, who, until recently, was chief of elections in Sacramento County.

"To my board of supervivors," explains Hawkins, walking into a large warehouse, "it sort of scares the bejesus out of them."

As he walks across the cavernous warehouse, Hawkins points to stack upon stack of mobile polling booths, their metal gleaming in the morning sunshine. They house the Pollstar punch card voting machines used by the county for more than 20 years. There are 7,700 of them in the warehouse.

Hawkins has to replace all the machines, but isn't sure how, or with what. New federal guidelines have not provided the answers. Hawkins says he never had any problem with the punchcard machines. But a successful lawsuit filed by civil liberties groups is forcing Sacramento and eight other California counties to abandon them. Though he likes some elements of the fully electronic machines, he's concerned about whether the technology is too young and its price tag, estimated at $30 million for his county alone, is too high.

"One of the major concerns is that as counties begin moving into high tech equipment and most of us without any high tech staff...where does that support come from?" asks Hawkins. "And if the support comes from the vendor - do you trust the vendor? If you have large companies essentially running elections in America, where does that leave us?"

STARK WARNINGS

During the summer of 2003, election officials from around the country gathered in Denver in a hotel ballroom draped with flags. Though it looked and sounded like a political convention, it was an annual conference and trade show of the International Association of Clerks, Records, Election Officials, and Treasurers (IACREOT).

As delegates gossiped and traded state pins, critics of electronic machines including David Dill and Rebecca Mercuri, organized a separate gathering in the same hotel. Their stark warnings about electronic voting drew not only front- page coverage in the local newspaper, it also brought on complaints from election officials and company executives attending the conference.

"I'm offended by the fact that they would even think that we would design and implement systems that had the potential to create a fraudulent election environment, " said Bill Welsh, chairman of the board of Elections Systems and Software.

ES&S bills itself as the world's largest producer of election equipment. Some 100 million ballots were counted on ES&S machines in the 2000 elections. Welsh says David Dill's doomsday scenario of a rogue programmer sabotaging a presidential vote, while conceivable in theory, ignores elaborate safeguards in the new machines, rigorous testing and America's complex election system.

"And to even think that there was an opportunity to influence the outcome of an election either through a machine manipulating the results or someone in this chain of about 1,000 people is absolutely ludicrous," continued Welsh. "I mean, you would have to have so many people complicit in that process that I would venture to say it's virtually impossible."

Other election officials agree, insisting that electronic machines will triumph over humans. Some say, 'The days of paper ballot, in the form of punchcards, are history.'


Next: REASSURING VOTERS