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Report: E-voting woes could stall S.F. election tally

Questions over the reliability of optical scan ballots, which are marked and scanned like a standardized test, could slow down the vote-counting process, according to election officials.

Glitches in touch-screen electronic voting machines without paper trails tend to rack up the most attention these days. But an irregularity over ballots marked by hand and scanned by a computer like standardized tests--known as the "optical-scan" approach--is poised to create a snafu in upcoming mayoral elections in San Francisco.

Illustration of an ES&S optical-scan ballot California Secretary of State

According to a San Francisco Chronicle report on Wednesday, there's concern among state officials that "less-sensitive" scanning machines at polling places across the California city won't be able to pick up ballots marked with anything other than a No. 2 pencil or a special pen provided by the voting machine manufacturer, Election Systems & Software (ES&S).

For that reason, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has decreed that the ballots cast during the election on Nov. 6 can only be counted using machines at the election headquarters--which, according to the city's election chief, officials will only be able to count about 10,000 ballots each day.

Considering more than 270,000 votes were cast in the last mayoral election, the special process could delay release of a final tally by weeks.

The latest news could prove a wake-up call for folks like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who have sung the praises of optical-scan systems because of the paper trail they leave behind. As the situation in San Francisco illustrates, even those machines aren't foolproof and beg for robust audits afterward.

Bowen's move is part of an ongoing dispute with ES&S over the reliability of its machines, according to the Chronicle. In late August, she issued a statement suggesting ES&S had misled four California counties and San Francisco into buying nearly 1,000 machines that hadn't been certified in the state.

She reportedly sent a letter to the Omaha, Neb.-based firm last week that accused the company of failing to fix problems that have been flagged in the past. Earlier this year, Bowen commissioned a top-to-bottom review of the state's voting systems and, displeased with the findings, ultimately imposed new conditions on all machines used in California precincts.