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Court refuses to lift California e-voting restrictions

Call for paper audit trails for e-ballot systems gets vote of confidence from a federal judge.

The California secretary of state and proponents of paper audit trails for voting machines garnered a judicial win Tuesday when a U.S. District Court judge refused to strike down the state's decertification of e-voting systems in 14 counties.

The ruling freezes a bid by four California counties and the American Association of People with Disabilities to avoid having to find alternatives to their electronic voting systems come the November presidential elections. Those groups had asked for a temporary restraining order against Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's decision, which would prevent them from using their e-voting machines.

Shelley's "decision to decertify touch-screen voting machines and to withhold further certification until he is satisfied that manufacturers and counties have complied with specific conditions is a reasonable one," Judge Florence-Marie Cooper stated in the ruling.

Nationwide, as irregularities in the voting machines' software and hardware continue to surface, state governments and voter groups are lashing out at the makers of the devices, saying the companies have not followed through on federal certification. The battle, which has left county election officials scrambling for answers, threatens confusion at the polls, which would leave voters as the ultimate victims.

Fourteen California counties, and about 43 percent of the state's voters, used some form of direct recording electronic, or DRE, voting machines in the March 2004 elections. Yet, following testimony in April that found that at least one voting-machine maker, Diebold Election Systems, had not obtained federal certification for its systems despite assuring that it would, the secretary of state banned that maker's systems and decertified other makers' machines.

"The court has found that the actions we have taken to ensure the security and integrity of the November election are appropriate--that they are, in fact, necessary," Shelley said in a statement. "Now is the time to leave the litigation and the acrimony behind, implement the added security measures we have called for, and run a secure, efficient election in November."

In June, Shelley released voting-machine guidelines for counties and manufacturers. To date, the secretary of state has come to an agreement with five counties--Merced, Orange, Santa Clara, Shasta and Tehema--and recertified those districts' voting machines. Among the requirements, the counties must agree to give voters the option of paper ballots, make the source code to the machine's software available for analysis and embark on a comprehensive poll-worker training program.

However, the four counties represented in the lawsuit--Kern, Plumas, Riverside and San Bernardino--have not yet come to an agreement with the state.

"It is very important that the voters in those counties enjoy the same security protections," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had submitted its own filing supporting the secretary of state's arguments. Three other voting, California Voter Foundation and Voters Unite--co-sponsored the friend-of-the-court brief.

John McDermott, lead attorney for the four California counties, would not immediately comment on the ruling, but Cohn said she believed it likely that the counties and AAPD will appeal the judgment, despite ongoing talks to defuse the situation.

"I don't think an appeal of this will help the discussion very much," Cohn said.