Dan Tokaji's Blog
Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Monday, June 20
A California Calamity in the Making?
With a 2006 deadline looming, California faces the prospect of failing to comply with HAVA's disability access requirements and having to pay back millions in federal funds. The Oakland Tribune has this story on the deliberations of the state's Voting Systems & Procedures Panel, regarding a Diebold electronic voting system.

California is among the states facing three different mandates. First, because it received federal funds under Title I of HAVA, it must replace its punch card machines by 2006. California already got rid of its Votomatic-style punch cards in 2004, in the face of a federal court order, but a number of counties are still using the Datavote system which must also be replaced as a condition of receiving federal funds. Second, under Title III of HAVA, the state must have a disability-accessible unit at each polling place by 2006. Third, as the result of a directive by former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and a statute enacted last year, every electronic voting machine must generate a contemporaneous paper record (the so called "voter verified paper audit trail") by 2006.

Several California counties are already using paperless Diebold voting machines. Trouble is, a lot of folks aren't very happy with the paper trail device being marketed by Diebold:
The paper-trail printer failed badly and jammed in initial state tests. A new round of tests in early June on a more refined, "pre-production" unit went smoothly, though state testers noted that it still makes ratcheting sounds "like a New Year's noisemaker" and uses temporary, thermal paper.
Disability activists are also unhappy with the Diebold machine, on the grounds that its accessibility features aren't adequate for people with visual and manual impairments. Another vendor's answer to the paper trail mandate -- the ES&S Automark -- presents problems of its own, since visually and mobility impaired voters would require assistance to use it. The ultimate result may be that at least some California countires are placed a situation where they can't, as a practical matter comply with all three of the mandates that they're facing.

My take: California's problems should give pause to legislators considering federal legislation that would require electronic voting machines to generate a contemporaneous paper record. The new Holt Bill (H.R. 550) described here would require such a record by 2006, and the Senate Rules & Administration Committee will be holding a hearing on the issue tomorrow. The experience of the Golden State demonstrates what havoc this bill would wreak on the nation's election system.

The perfect is the enemy of the good -- and can sometimes result in the sort of "train wreck" that California is now facing.

Correction: The VSPP did not certify the Diebold system at its last meeting, but has not yet decided whether or not to certify it. It will take written comments until June 30 and make a decision after that. I've corrected the second sentence above, which previously stated erroneously that the VSPP had made a decision not to approve the system.

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