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E-voting rules likely to lead to confusion in 10 counties

By Dion Nissenbaum  San Jose Mercury   28 October 2004

SACRAMENTO - They were supposed to make life at the ballot box easier. But with less than a week to go until Election Day, new electronic voting machines are sparking confusion and uneven sets of rules that await millions of Californians when they show up at the polls Tuesday.

If you don't want to use the new technology in Santa Clara County, poll workers will offer paper ballots as an e-voting alternative only if asked. In Napa County, you will be bumped from line and asked to wait. Until Wednesday, Merced County had planned to essentially treat voters who ask for paper ballots as suspect and subject them to a higher level of scrutiny.

The last-minute interpretations of new state rules have e-voting critics worried that Californians who have concerns about the accuracy of the machines will face unfair hurdles.

``I don't think people who want to cast paper ballots should be treated as second-class voters,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

In an effort to iron out the differences, state elections officials held a conference call Wednesday with the 10 California counties using e-voting machines and issued a new directive this week: Voters should be treated the same regardless of whether they choose electronic voting or paper ballots.

Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who has been one of the nation's leading e-voting skeptics, embarked on a long-running and contentious battle with county elections officials over their right to use the machines. Critics oppose machines that don't print backup paper ballots in case the computers crash or there are questions about the tally. In the end, Shelley allowed 10 counties to use the technology if they agreed to comply with 23 rules, including the right of all voters to cast a paper ballot.

But the counties have been applying the rules differently.

Voters in Santa Clara County will be allowed to cast paper ballots but only if they ask. Poll workers have been trained to stay mum about the paper alternative to the so-called DRE direct recording electronic process.

``We are not a paper-and-plastic county like a grocery store,'' said county Registrar Jesse Durazo. ``We're a DRE county with high confidence of voter satisfaction, high confidence of turnout and high confidence of security.''

Merced County's top elections official had planned to treat paper ballots of registered voters like provisional ballots that require extra scrutiny before they can be counted. When pressed on the issue Wednesday, Stephen Jones backed away from the idea and said the votes won't be put through the extra level of investigation.

Napa County Registrar John Tuteur will be even tougher: People who don't want to use the e-voting machines will be asked to wait for everyone else in line at the time to cast their votes before they will be given a paper ballot.

``Every American has a constitutional right to vote, but they don't have a constitutional right to choose how they vote,'' he said. ``If anyone requests the paper ballot, they will be asked to step aside because it distracts our workers having to run two election systems at the same time.''

Shelley aides have been working behind the scenes to dissuade Tuteur from going down that road.

Tuesday, they sent a memo to all 10 counties in an effort to head off Election Day problems.

``This `paper or electronic voting machine' option should not be compromised by either discouraging or encouraging the use of a paper ballot or an electronic voting machine,'' wrote John Mott-Smith, chief of Shelley's election division. ``What the directive and agreements with counties require is neutrality.''

But Tuteur has taken the offensive by urging Shelley to come out and assure hesitant voters that the e-voting technology he has approved is safe.

``To avoid a harvest of chaos on Election Day as voters refuse to use the certified system provided, I am appealing to Secretary Shelley to undertake an immediate and comprehensive publicity campaign to assure voters in the electronic counties of the accuracy and security of electronic voting thanks to the safeguards he has put in place,'' he wrote to Shelley earlier this month.

But that's not going to happen. While trying to run the election, Shelley has been distracted by a cloud of controversy. Because of concerns that he used federal money for partisan purposes, state officials froze millions he could have used for the November election.

That leaves Shelley with no money to do any kind of media campaign.

``I don't think he's going to be doing press conferences and the like because he's totally involved in the preparation for Tuesday,'' said Tony Miller, an attorney for Shelley.

Officials in other e-voting counties, including Alameda, Riverside and Plumas, did not return phone calls for comment.

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