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Official says state was forced to certify voting machines

By: GIG CONAUGHTON - Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO A state elections official said Tuesday that California's secretary of state was forced by insubordinate counties including San Diego County into blessing the electronic voting equipment that caused polls to open late and voters to be turned away March 2.

Assistant Secretary of State Marc Carrel told county supervisors the state initially refused to certify programming machines used in San Diego County's first electronic election March 2, but relented and gave its blessing when San Diego County Registrar Sally McPherson said she would use them "with or without certification." Counties cannot legally use voting systems until they are certified by the state.

Carrel's allegation prompted county Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob to accuse the secretary of state's office of "buck-passing." County managers, meanwhile, denied Carrel's accusation.

"I want to make it very clear," county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard said. "These systems were certified by the secretary of state in this election. We could not have used them if they were not certified."

A still-mysterious power drain is believed to have caused poll workers to be presented with an unfamiliar computer screen that prevented them from programming the ATM cardlike "smart cards" voters needed to use new touch-screen voting machines.

State and federal officials had ordered counties to replace punch-card voting systems by this year's elections after the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida.

A preliminary investigation conducted by county managers into the March 2 problems reported that 36 percent of the county's 1,611 polls were unable to open on time at 7 a.m., and that an unknown number of voters were turned away.

On Tuesday, local residents and officials testified for more than two hours in the first public hearing about the election problems at the county supervisors' regular meeting.

Numerous speakers, including those from the Carlsbad group Save Democracy, restated their criticisms and concerns about electronic voting that the systems are inherently untrustworthy, could possibly be rigged to manipulate elections, and offer no reliable tracking of votes without printouts of cast ballots.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others called on the county to have an independent investigator study the voting system problems rather than county managers.

"Lets get some transparency and legitimacy back into San Diego's voting processes," said Pamela Smith of Save Democracy.

However, several speakers, including members of the disabled community, praised the electronic voting machines and said they were easier to use the punch-card systems the county used for decades.

"I can't set my digital clock, can't turn on my daughter's computer, can't program the VCR and I can barely work my cell phone," said Joy Fleming, a soft-spoken, 76-year-old black woman from San Diego. "I'm not partial to new technology. But I'm here to tell you that I voted and I loved it."

Others said they liked the systems, but that poll workers needed to be better trained so they could respond to computer problems when they occurred in the field.

But the most provocative statements came from Carrel, who blasted county elections officers, and Diebold Systems Inc., the Ohio-based company that built the 10,200 machines San Diego County bought in December for $31 million.

Carrel said Diebold continually dragged its feet when told it needed federal testing done on the smart-card programming machines. He said state officials finally told Diebold on Feb. 13 that they would not certify the machines. Diebold Chief Executive Officer Bob Urosevich said the company made its equipment available for testing as soon as it was told it was needed, but left quickly after the meeting and dodged further questions.

Carrel said the state quickly tested and conditionally blessed the machines when San Diego and other counties that were also switching to Diebold electronic voting systems threatened to use the machines anyway when told they would not be certified.

"We got the sky is falling from several counties," Carrel said after the meeting.

Carrel said the secretary of state's office never went public with its unhappiness about certifying the equipment because the discussions were private, and there was "no public event," that offered the state a chance to air its views.

Carrel bristled when county supervisors asked the secretary of state's office to offer them to give them a timeline on when the machines which were only certified for the March 2 election would be approved or rejected for November's presidential election.

"I can't control what the vendor (Diebold) does. I can't control what the federal authorities do," Carrel said.

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