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County should be wary of voting technology

OpEd   Oakland Tribune   08 February 2005
BEFORE Alameda County shells out big bucks for another version of Diebold's electronic voting system, officials ought to take a long, hard look at whether it's worth the investment. Being first when buying new technology isn't always best.

Alameda County was reminded of that truism when it learned that it may cost another $5.9 million to upgrade from the Diebold Inc. electronic voting machines it bought for $12.7 million in 2002.

If it must pay that much to get machines that provide a paper trail for voters to visually check their votes before recording them electronically, Alameda County and other investors in early e-voting technology hope to pay for it with Help America Vote Act funds. But it's uncertain that this idea will get federal or state approval, meaning the county may have to tap future budgets to pay for it.

Paying Diebold another $5.9 million to upgrade from the Accu-vote TX system to the newer TSX is a bit much, given the equipment's less-than-sterling performance the past three elections.

Only November's vote could be called trouble-free. Alameda County was a guinea pig for Diebold's untested and uncertified early touch-screen voting ventures. Its faulty, unproven software and hardware caused votes to be given to the wrong candidate in the 2003 recall election and prevented   some voters from casting ballots at all in March 2004.

That is worth remembering. We expect county officials to pursue a price break from Diebold if it decides that the TSX is needed.

Diebold also is working on a paper-trail apparatus for the older TS machines. That could be cheaper ? $2 million ? but getting the gadgets in time for the June 2006 primary may be dicey. The older machine also is twice as heavy as new gear, meaning it's more difficult for poll workers to handle. It may need to be trucked to polling places at a cost of $156,000 per election, which would take 25 elections to spend the extra money the TSX costs.

But there's a third alternative that shouldn't be dismissed because it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of touch screens. That is to use paper ballots and scanners to count them, as is done with absentee votes.

The number of absentee voters in Alameda County more than trebled last year, from 60,000 to 200,000. Assistant Registrar Elaine Ginnold says absentees may soon account for half the votes cast. If that's the case, maybe we should invest in more scanners. That might be smart if voting technology continues to change rapidly. It's also tested and relatively tamper-proof compared to newer devices and could eventually eliminate the need for physical   polling places, rendering touch screens obsolete. Soon we may all be marking ballots over a cup of coffee in our homes.

San Mateo County has used paper ballots and scanners for years, and its elections are among the fastest, most trouble-free in the Bay Area. Of course, paper ballots aren't free, either. They cost 80 cents each, which at 550,000 voters is $440,000. It would take 13.4 elections to recover the $5.9 million for Diebold's latest wonderboxes.

But simple, fast, cheap and reliable is not a bad combination.

The next few years will be tough economically. Federal and state programs continue to shrink, putting a bigger burden on   counties. Being careful about investments may be the better part of wisdom.

Alameda County must not jump into buying the TSX, especially without concessions. Diebold's history warrants it. Past heartburn was a clear warning that haste in buying voting machines may be a waste.

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