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By Cynthia L. Webb washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; 2:33 PM
With the presidential election less than five months away, concerns over the security and accuracy of new high-tech voting machines are intensifying, fueled in no small part by the top elections official in the nation's most populous state.
California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (D) moved in April to decertify several types of electronic voting machines in several counties. He also ordered some counties to halt plans to use new voting machines in the upcoming election and mandated stricter security guidelines for e-voting machines. On Tuesday, he released new standards for the creation and testing of verifiable paper trails for the machines.
So how big of an impact is Shelley having? Well, getting profiled by The New York Times says a lot. In a feature article on Tuesday, the Times said Shelley's action on e-voting technology "has national implications because 40 percent of all touch-screen voting machines in use are in California. If vendors start making equipment to the specifications of the huge California market, that market is likely to dictate what is available to the rest of the country. But Mr. Shelley's advocacy of paper trails has set off a fierce and emotional reaction among local election officials in California and elsewhere and has brought the purchase of such systems to a near standstill. Nearly one third of voters nationwide this November will vote on touch screens."
But the California official has his fair share of critics. The Times focused on Conny B. McCormack, Los Angeles County's elections registrar. McCormack, who runs "the biggest voting jurisdiction in the country ... said that Mr. Shelley had confounded local officials by handing down directives that require a technology that does not yet exist. Rather than inspire voter confidence, she said, Mr. Shelley has undermined it."
Wired News reported that Shelley's paper trail standards are the first of their kind. "There are currently no federal standards to test a machine that produces a paper trail. But it's possible that the Federal Election Commission, which has assumed oversight for certifying voting systems, will adopt the California standards for the nation," Wired said.
But don't count officials in California's San Bernardino County among those willing to play ball. "San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said the county will continue to pursue its lawsuit against Shelley's office," despite Tuesday's release of the paper-trail standards, The Victorville Daily Press reported. It noted that the county, along with Riverside and Kern counties, is suing Shelley over his decertification decision. "We have supported a paper trail since the beginning, and if there is one available for use, we would be happy to do this," Wert said. "But we don't, and never will, support an election where voters are told they can vote electronically or on paper."
Making A Difference?
Still, Shelley is winning some accolades. An editorial in Wednesday's San Jose Mercury News praises Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Jesse Durazo for cooperating with the secretary of state. "On Monday," the editorial said, "Shelley recertified the county's new touch-screen voting system after the county responded to Shelley's demands for a secure and accurate election in November. The county has five months to put those measures in place." The opinion piece said Shelley's "unprecedented measures angered county registrars whose counties have invested $100 million in new equipment. But Shelley's actions, based on a record of software glitches and legitimate worries about fraud, were warranted. ... Four counties have challenged Shelley's orders in court. Their voters would be better served if their registrars spent their time working with Shelley, as Durazo has done, instead of suing him." Another article in the paper's Tuesday edition provided more background on the compromise.
The Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal reported that "three of the four vendors who produce touchscreen voting systems have agreed to meet the Secretary of State's security measures. Merced and Orange Counties were recertified last week. That leaves a total of 11 counties casting about for ways their residents can cast their ballots in November, a Spokesman for Mr. Shelley says."
Dan Gillmor, the Mercury News's technology columnist, singled out Shelley for praise in his column today: "In the end ... the pivotal player has been Shelley. He's done what a public official should do: Listen to the arguments, look at the evidence and then reach a conclusion that is logically unassailable. He's taken some risks for doing the right thing. Let's hope the nation will follow his lead."
So will we be seeing more of Kevin Shelley in the future? First elected California's secretary of state in 2002, he is a young up-and-comer in Democratic politics, and The New York Times profile concluded that he is "taking the arcane matter of voting machines and turning it into a hobbyhorse that some predict he could ride to the governor's office."