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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen Comes to UC Davis to Discuss Voting

Last night, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen made a last minute appearance at UC Davis in an event sponsored by the Davis College Democrats. Between 50 and 70 students showed up for the event--although the size of the lecture hall made it look like a very sparse crowd.

The Secretary of State spoke about a number of issues involving voting, registration, ballots, and security of voting equipment and systems.

One of the first things she discussed was the creation of a secure electronic voting system. One of the problems with such a system is the security. She said during the course of the debate, "the people most alarmed were those who knew the most about such system." That created a very uneasy feeling for those involved.

They hired the University of California to test their system and had people assigned to try to hack into the security. One of the big problems is that the physical security was problematic. For instance they had a security seal on the machines that let people know if the machine had been opened, but one could simply take a screwdriver and open the screws on the other side of the machine, open it, and close it without disturbing the security system.

Moreover, the equipment was not physically secured, it would often be left out in various location prior to an election. All of these problems led them to stop using the touchscreen voting machines last summer except for the disabled. Unfortunately there are problems with these machines for the disabled as well, including the ability to reach the top portions of the machine from a wheel chair. This led the Secretary of State to declare that we have "done a horrifying job of making polling places accessible to people with disabilities."

California has now gone to the optical scan system which has problems of its own. One of the problems is a calibration problem, similar to problems that they have had scoring standardized tests. However, to add reliability to the system California has implemented an audit requirement to be kicked in at certain thresholds. This means that if the results are within a given percentage, they must do a random sample by a hand count.

Security and voter fraud is not a new issue. What may have changed is that there may be ways to systematically change the results, however, she discussed old methods of putting pencil lead in the calibration to prevent a certain percentage of votes to be counted.

She said that we must remain vigilant, this vigilence "requires us to constantly look at what went wrong and what went right and to learn from our mistakes." And they are not just our mistakes either.

Her goal is to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote registers to vote, everyone who registers to vote casts their ballot, and everyone who casts their ballot has it counted.

Her favorite voting story came from Chicago. People were casting their ballots and told to mark them with certain pens. But the pens apparently did not work. When the poll workers were asked this they told the voters it was invisible ink. Roughly twenty people proceeded to vote believing they were using invisible ink markers to vote with. Finally the twenty-first person was incredulous and said there is no such thing as invisible ink. He called the authorities and they put a stop to that and then had to spend the rest of the day trying to track down the 20 people who voted with invisible ink.

Secretary of State Bowen talked about the advantages and disadvantages to consolidating elections. The problem with local elections is that you get very low turnout at times. On the other hand, you end up having national forces drive turnout for local elections in consolidated elections. There is also the problem in counties like Los Angeles, where you simply have so much on the ballot it is difficult to fit it all.

During question and answer period she indicated that she supports Tuesday voting. The problem with weekend voting is that you have various religions with the Sabbath on a given day. If you make it two day voting, you have problems with securing the equipment and the ballot overnight. She also pointed out that marketers introduce new products on Tuesdays and that people are most engaged and most on the job from Tuesday through Thursday. Hence Tuesday is the best day.

Davis Councilmember Lamar Heystek asked about a choice voting and instant runoff system. Debra Bowen said that in 2006 she carried a bill in the legislature that would have allowed non-charter cities to implement choice voting. At that time she could not even get it out of committee. The next time it got out of committee, passed the legislature, but was vetoed by the governor. That is an example of how much awareness and support for choice voting has changed in a very short period of time. She thinks a uniform system would be better to avoid localities having to reinvent the wheel. She talked about the advantages of this rather than current primary rules at the local level that would force a runoff in a race like Yolo County Supervisor if the winner only managed 49.7% of the vote--that is incredibly costly and she cited an example where it happened despite a huge lead by the individual ahead in the race. She also cited the need for the software to be certified by the state and felt it would be easier with uniform instant runoff systems.

Debra Bowen's presentation was very informative, a lot of these issues are simply things that we do not think about involving voting. We tend to see problems with the systems when things go wrong, but do not see the large amount of work that goes into getting things correct. Our system despite its flaws has worked well for a considerable amount of time.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting