California county sues state over e-vote ban

Riverside County teams up with groups representing the disabled to sue California's secretary of state for banning voting machines that help the disabled vote anonymously.

Robert Lemos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
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Robert Lemos
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Riverside County teamed up this week with groups representing the disabled to sue California's secretary of state, who banned voting machines that, the plaintiffs argue, help the disabled exercise their right to vote anonymously.

On April 30, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley prohibited four counties from using Diebold Election Systems voting machines, after a panel of officials, distrustful of Diebold, unanimously voted to recommend that the machine's certifications be revoked. Shelley also decertified similar devices, so-called direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, in 10 other counties.

However, in a lawsuit filed Thursday, Riverside County, an early adopter of the technology, claims that the panel's findings were driven more by politics than fact and that the ruling takes away rights from disabled voters.

"This is another flip-flop by state officials, based on shifting political winds, rather than considering what is best for the people of California," County Supervisor John Tavaglione said. "They're punishing us for using a system that has worked effectively and without error."

The lawsuit is the latest sally in an increasingly contentious debate over the trustworthiness of electronic voting machines. Shelley's order had been issued amid growing concerns about the integrity of e-voting, following a host of glitches that hit systems during the March 2 elections.

The secretary of state banned four counties from using Diebold's machines and required that the other 10 counties, including Riverside, reapply for certification. The major issue is that the current crop of DRE voting machines have no way to check that the vote was accurately tallied. The largest organization of computer scientists, the Association for Computing Machinery, has called for a paper trail to check the integrity of voting machines.

"I want to state clearly and unequivocally: There will be a paper trail for every single vote cast in the state of California," Shelley said in an April 30 statement announcing the decision. The secretary of state's office didn't immediately have a statement regarding the lawsuit.

The state has given Riverside County more than $7 million to spend on electronic voting machines. For the March 2 election, 31 California counties equipped polling places with optical scanning machines for voters, and the remaining 13 used paper ballots, according to data from the Election Reform Information Project.

The latest decision is a reversal from the course toward easier-to-use voting machines.

The decision is "a disaster for California that jeopardizes the integrity of the November election," Mischelle Townsend, the Registrar of Voters for Riverside County, said in a statement, announcing that the county had teamed up with disabled voters to sue the state. "Mr. Shelley would saddle voters with inferior equipment that carries much higher error rates and is inaccessible to the disabled. It doesn't make sense."

The American Association of People with Disabilities, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, argues that California's decertification of DRE voting machines violates federal and state laws, in particular the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

One of the main complaints involves the rights of the visually impaired. The DRE voting machines can be equipped with headphones and sound files for visually impaired voters, allowing the name of each candidate to be spoken by the machines. With older technologies, a poll worker would have to read the information to the voter, preventing people from casting their ballot anonymously.