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Absentee vote rise expected

PAPER BALLOTS: Riverside and San Bernardino counties expect less use of electronic machines.

 Monday, October 4, 2004

By CLAIRE VITUCCI Inland Southern California Press-Enterprise

As electronic-voting machines encounter mounting criticism, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are gearing up for what could be a marked increase in the number of voters who cast paper ballots this November.

That could mean delays on election night in finding out the Inland area's winners and losers - from the presidency down to the school board.

In April, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's office decertified all electronic voting machines, citing concerns about security and fraud.

Counties with the machines, including Riverside and San Bernardino, sued to regain the right to use them.

As part of a settlement, both counties were allowed to use touch-screen voting, but election officials were ordered to provide paper ballots for at least 25 percent of voters who may request them at the polls Nov. 2.

San Bernardino County ordered 200,000 paper ballots, which will cost about $136,000, said county registrar Scott Konopasek.

Riverside County expects to spend between $175,000 to $250,000 on paper ballots, said Carole Stringer, the county's deputy registrar.

The number is approximate because voter registration applications are still pouring in, she said.

The secretary of state's office is expected to reimburse both counties for the cost of the paper ballots through federal funding secured under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, said Tony Miller, a secretary of state's office spokesman.

The act was created to help states eliminate punch-card voting and establish election administration standards.

Stringer said Riverside county hasn't hired extra poll workers to deal with the paper balloting.

But it has implemented new procedures for handling essentially two voting systems.

Voters casting electronic ballots will sign in at the polls on different sheets than those casting paper ballots, Stringer said.

Hand counting paper ballots will mean fewer results on election night and more in the days that follow.

The counties have 28 days to make election results official.

Konopasek estimated that only about 75 to 80 percent of votes will be counted on Election Day - those cast electronically and any absentee ballots that come in the day before.

Problem Nationwide

Skepticism about electronic voting has spread across the nation. More than 100,000 machines have been installed across the country, enabling some 50 million people to vote electronically in November.

A number of voting-rights advocates and computer scientists say the technology is prone to fraud, hacking and computer failures.

Others say there aren't enough checks and balances to determine whether votes are cast and counted accurately.

Linda Soubirous agrees. She lost to incumbent Bob Buster in Riverside County's 1st District Supervisorial race, in which Buster narrowly avoided a November runoff.

Soubirous asked to see the individual voting machines' computer disks and other electronic records relating to her race, but county officials refused.

Soubirous sued, and her lawsuit was dismissed Monday.

She said she plans to appeal.

Soubirous said she will vote by absentee ballot.

"I think the voting machines and everything behind it should be seen if we ask," Soubirous said. "It should be transparent. There shouldn't be anything to hide."

The Temecula Valley Chapter of Democracy for America, a group inspired by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, is encouraging its 100-plus members to vote either by absentee ballot or paper ballot at the polls.

Jerry Ewig, a co-coordinator for the local chapter, acknowledges he's voted using the touch-screen machine in the past without being concerned about his vote.

But recent news questioning the machines' accuracy and Soubirous' experience has made him wary.

He said election officials say, "Trust us. It's working," but it's difficult to know if the machines are correctly tabulating votes.

"It's mysterious what happens inside the black box," he said.

The use of absentee ballots is on the rise in Riverside County - so far nearly 110,000 permanent absentee ballots have been ordered. That's far above the 24,000 absentee ballots cast in the 2000 presidential election in Riverside County, Stringer said.

But the increase has more to do with a change in law than any controversy over touch-screen voting, she said.

Since the 2000 election, anyone in California can request a permanent absentee ballot regardless of health status, Stringer said. In the past, voters had to prove they were disabled to be on the permanent absentee voter list.

Konopasek said he expected about 130,000 San Bernardino County voters to have requested absentee ballots by now. But so far, only 124,000 people have filed requests.

Paper Trail

The California Democratic Party is privately urging concerned voters to cast paper ballots instead of using electronic voting machines. It will launch an "Every Vote Counts" campaign Nov. 1 in which lawyers will help ensure voter accuracy, said Bob Mulholland, a party strategist.

"We're very concerned and we're hoping that the 58 county election officials will do the best job possible with the equipment they have," Mulholland said.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Riverside County chapter also is encouraging Americans to consider voting by mail, said the Rev. James Baylark of Moreno Valley, chapter president.

The main concern is security, Baylark said.

He pointed to studies conducted after the 2000 election that said anywhere from 1 million to 3 million votes were lost through electronic voting and that the technology could be hacked into and that electronic voting doesn't allow officials to conduct a manual recount.

"The key is to have something tangible or an audit trail that will show me, 'Here, this is what I voted for,' " Baylark said.

Part of the contract signed with San Bernardino County is that the county would receive voting-machine printers for free as soon as they were certified by the state, said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Sequoia Voting Systems, the maker of the touch-screen voting machines used in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

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