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California County Touches Voting's Future
Riverside runs the largest e-voting system in the nation
By , ISI

voters line up to use touch-screens In 1998, Riverside County Registrar Mischelle Townsend spent $1.4 million on election printing - and ended up throwing a little more than half of her ballots away unused.

"I almost had a cardiac arrest," Townsend recalls. "I said there has to be a better way."

Now, four years later, Riverside, a sprawling middle-class stretch of desert, scrub and commuter suburbs feeding into neighboring Los Angeles and Orange counties, is the largest county in the nation to have converted entirely to touch-screen electronic voting.

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Officials spent nearly $14 million on 4,250 machines for 714 precincts in the fall of 2000, just in time for the presidential election. While Florida floundered in a sea of hanging and dimpled chads, Riverside's 620,000 registered voters (out of a population of 1.6 million) lined up to tap their votes into snazzy new touch-screens.

The verdict? "A 99 percent approval rating," Townsend says. "People actually enjoy voting on our equipment; they find it easier to use."

Manufactured by Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment of Exeter, Calif., Riverside's system consists of portable machines that fold out into stand-alone voting booths. The electronic screens resemble bank automatic teller machines. The voter begins the touch-screen process by verifying his identity and registration with a precinct worker. The worker hands him a smart card, which, when inserted in the touch-screen machine, brings up the correct ballot. Voters can choose among foreign languages. The screen can be adjusted for voters in wheelchairs, and headphones are available for the blind.

On the screen, each candidate's name appears opposite a circle. When the voter touches the circle, a green check mark appears and the names of the other candidates disappear. After making all his choices, the voter reviews a summary screen. He can go back and change any selection. When the voter is satisfied, he touches the "cast ballot" button and the vote is recorded electronically both in the machine and on a tally cartridge. After the polls close, the cartridges are taken to a government building and the results are transmitted electronically over a secure internal data network. Batteries with three hours of juice are included in case of power outages.

Touch-screen machines make it impossible to vote for two candidates for the same office, one of the big problems in Florida 2000. Touch-screen's closest rival, the optical scan, can't do that. "Most of the comments are way to go, it's about time we came into the 21st century," Townsend says.

The benefits extend also to election administration, Townsend adds. In February, 2001, a special election was held for a state assembly seat that spanned parts of both Riverside and adjacent San Bernardino counties. By 9:17 p.m., less than 1- hours after the polls closed, Riverside had a final tally. San Bernardino, which uses punch-cards, had nothing to report. In fact, San Berdo's final count wasn't in until after midnight the next day.

Efficiency was also on display in the March 2002 election, Townsend says. An unusually complex ballot and new voting procedures proved such a nightmare that in Los Angeles and other nearby counties, the election was dubbed "The Perfect Storm." Hundreds of poll workers there didn't show up, and scores of polling places never opened. Los Angeles County Registrar and Recorder Connie McCormack ended up apologizing to the voters.

In Riverside, "every polling place opened on time," Townsend says. "We finished counting about 11:15 p.m.; Los Angeles wasn't through until 4:30 a.m."

Given all these advantages, the obvious question becomes: Why isn't everyone going touch-screen? The problem is accuracy. The Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project found that electronic voting machines lost nearly as many votes as the dreaded punch-cards, 2.3 percent averaged over four elections. The problem was even worse "down ballot", where the lesser state and local office races hold sway. Electronic voting's down-ballot losses ran to 5.9 percent, the Caltech-MIT study found.

Voters may be exhausted by the page-by-page electronic navigation, or confused by electronic instructions, explains R. Michael Alvarez, Caltech director of the Caltech-MIT study. The alternatives, paper and optical-scan ballots, perform better. Paper ballots are no longer considered practical.

Optical-scan has had problems with voters selecting more than one candidate for a single office, but that can be corrected by having ballots checked at the precinct level, before they are officially cast. Despite some concerns about paper jams, printing costs and ballot management, the Caltech-MIT study came squarely down on the side of optical-scan technology.

"Scanning is imperfect but it is the best of what is," the report said. Townsend says the Caltech-MIT unfairly lumped older, push-button electronic machines with touch-screens. Alvarez acknowledges that push-button machines are worse than touch screens. And he says Riverside County is getting good results with its touch screens -- but that doesn't hold true throughout the U.S. Touch-screen error rates were high in Beaver County, Penn., and New Mexico, where they topped 5 percent in several places.

"Another thing about Riverside, the vendor is treating Riverside County as experiment, giving her a huge amount of background assistance," says Alvarez. "Obviously, her department is well administered. But it's not clear that all election officials will get the special attention she's been able to get." Townsend is undeterred. One of the most important factors for her is that touch-screen voting has the confidence of her county's voters.

"Elections are not about speed and cost," Lloyd Levine, an elections consultant and current candidate for state assembly from the L.A. suburbs, told the New York Times. "Having your vote count, accuracy, secrecy, fairness and access to ballots -- those are much more important."