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County ordered to offer voters paper ballots

By: GIG CONAUGHTON - Staff Writer

Less than three weeks before the March 2 elections, state officials have ordered San Diego County to offer voters the option of casting paper ballots because of continued questions and criticisms of new electronic "touch-screen" voting machines.

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Sally McPherson said Thursday that the county would comply with the order by letting local voters cast paper ballots on election day if they wanted to by visiting the registrar's Kearny Mesa offices.

Meanwhile, a local group, Carlsbad's Save Our Democracy, that has criticized the county's new electronic machines as a potential threat to democracy said McPherson should make paper ballots available at all 1,611 precincts.

The news Thursday was just the latest twist in the ongoing saga of San Diego County's switch from punch-card ballots to an electronic voting-machine system created by Ohio-based Diebold Systems Inc.

County and state elections officials say the electronic machines are certified, secure and more accurate than old punch-card ballot systems. Elections officials in Riverside County say their electronic systems have worked without a problem since they got them in 1999.

But state and county officials have been pelted by critics and studies in the past year that say electronic voting machines and Diebold's in particular were untrustworthy and had security flaws that allowed them to be tampered with, especially when they did not offer voters "paper trail" printouts of cast votes.

A report issued in July by computer scientists at John Hopkins and Rice universities said Diebold's machines had flaws that could let individual voters cast multiple ballots, and that could allow insiders such as election workers to hack into the systems and change votes. Diebold denied that charge, and one of the professors was later found to have a financial tie to a Diebold competitor. Subsequent studies by defense contractor SAIC and the state of Maryland also identified potential vulnerabilities in Diebold machines.

McPherson said those studies were conducted on older models of Diebold's machines, and she and state officials said they were confident the new machines were secure.

Counties across the state and nation, including San Diego County, meanwhile, were forced to change from their old punch-card ballot systems by this year's elections because of the 2000 presidential-election fiasco in Florida.

Debate over "hanging chads" and "dimpled chads" discredited punch-card ballots and led California and federal officials to ban the systems in 2001.

"These systems are the future of voting, not just in California, but across the nation," said Doug Stone, spokesman for Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, on Thursday.

In December, San Diego County supervisors ended 18 months of study and voted to spend $30 million to buy 10,200 touch-screen voting machines from Diebold, over the objections of a dozen voters some with Save Our Democracy who said electronic voting machines threatened democracy.

However, critics have continued to speak out against the machines, particularly because the ones used by a number of counties, including San Diego County, wouldn't offer voters a paper printout of their votes until the 2006 elections.

Stone said the continued criticism led Shelley to notify San Diego, San Joaquin, Solano and Kern counties Wednesday night that they must offer voters the chance to cast paper ballots.

However, Stone said Shelley did not require the counties to offer paper ballots at every precinct.

Pamela Smith of Save Our Democracy said the state's requirement that counties must offer voters the option of paper ballots was a good one.

However, she said, paper ballots should be at every precinct.

"If there's time to print them, there's time to have them delivered," Smith said. "We'll be happy to volunteer to drive them to precincts."

But McPherson said it was impossible to offer paper ballots at all of the county's 1,611 precincts.

She said the county has thousands of different versions of the March 2 ballots variations based on different party affiliations, community-based election issues, and language.

"It's an impossibility at this stage of the game and would jeopardize the elections if it were required," McPherson said.

She said voters who want to cast paper ballots can still apply until Feb. 24 to the registrar's office to get absentee ballots.

Smith, meanwhile, said her group was also concerned that the county plans to let precinct workers take the electronic machines home with them the night before the elections so they do not have to pick them up the morning of the election.

"That's not very good safety measures," Smith said.

But McPherson said all the county's machines have security seals that will be checked the morning of the elections by security officials. Those officials will also run "zero tapes" on each machine to ensure that no votes have been cast on them beforehand.

"I have total confidence in the system," McPherson said.

Contact staff writer Gig Conaughton at (760) 739-6696 or gconaughton@nctimes.com.

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