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Voting Experience In Santa Clara County (CA)
VotersUnite Exclusive Report

June 3, 2008, by Noel Runyan

I just finished my 7th attempt to vote on Sequoia Edge II voting machines in actual elections in Santa Clara County. Once again, the complexities of the voting system overwhelmed the pollworkers and they were not able to get the voting machine working by themselves.

I signed in at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, at our local firehouse polling place. It was disconcerting to hear the pollworkers literally shouting from one end of the sign-in tables to the other to ask and announce out loud what political party I was voting for. They were not being discrete at all about it and not even using a party code number, instead of the actual party name. They were also literally shouting, because there was someone using a noisy leaf blower just outside the large open doors of the firehouse. My party affiliation may be a matter of public record, but I do not feel it is right for the pollworkers to be telling all my neighbors and others in the polling place what party I'm voting for. I understand that other counties are more discrete and use a quietly exchanged code number to communicate the party affiliation between pollworkers.

When I asked to use the accessible voting machine, they told me that I would have to wait 20 minutes while they booted the system. They had actually set up the machine before poll opening, but had not left it turned on. Also, they admitted that the system had not been tested to make sure that the audio access was working.

The machine was set up a few steps away from the sign-in line and facing the line of people waiting to sign-in. When I mentioned the eavesdropping privacy exposure problem, the pollworkers agreed to turn the machine around so it did not face the sign-in line.

After inserting my voter ID card in the Sequoia machine, there was a long wait while the machine powered up, and the pollworkers kept saying that it was doing what it was supposed to do. Eventually my wife finished marking and casting her paper ballot, so she came over to the Sequoia machine and looked at the screen. Because of her past experience with the system she identified that it was offering the language selection menu on the visual display, a sign that the system was not in the audio mode. When we told the pollworkers about this, they said that we just had to wait for it to start talking. I explained that I had some experience encoding the voter ID cards and asked the pollworker who was nicely trying to help me if they had selected the audio option from the hidden menu on the card encoder. He assured me that they had done it correctly.

Because the machine was clearly not in audio voting mode, my wife went over to the worker who actually did the card encoding and asked him about the procedure he had used to encode the card. He was shocked to realize that he had completely forgotten about having to do the audio access selection step in the card encoding process for my card. He soon had a new card ready for me.

At this point there was a new problem; they didn't know how to get the Sequoia Edge machine to eject my first voter card. After pressing several buttons and checking their manuals, one of the pollworkers decided that he should just go ahead and submit my unvoted ballot, using the touch screen and display. Fortunately, my wife stopped him by pointing out that I wouldn't be allowed to vote two ballots.

Next the pollworker went behind the machine and started pushing buttons again. He said that he had "pressed the eject button" but it had no effect. By "eject" button, he meant the yellow reset button. When the pollworker went off to read the manuals some more, I suggested to my wife that the pollworker might not have been holding the reset button down long enough. At this point, my wife went to the back of the machine and pressed the reset button, keeping it down long enough that it finally worked, the system reset, and ejected my original voter card.

As I was about to insert my second voter card in the Sequoia Edge, another pollworker asked me for the card and took it away to try encoding the card again. He said that the card had probably timed out, as there is a timing system used to disable cards that are not used shortly after they are encoded by the pollworkers. Finally, after inserting my third voter card and waiting for the system to reload with the audio interface, the system started talking and was ready for me to start voting, 13 minutes after I originally signed in.

As I began listening to the choices on the ballot, I was surprised to find that the quality of the local recordings was terrible, distorted and scratchy, with lots of popping and chopping. Although the factory-recorded vendor's messages did not have the problem, the locally recorded names of races and candidates were so noisy and amateurish that I stopped voting for a minute and a half to record samples of the poor quality audio recordings.

When I returned to voting, I had a brief panic, as the system said, "You are finished voting." My panic stopped as soon as I realized that I had pressed the Back arrow key on the keypad and caused the system to wrap around to the end menu that gives a choice between reviewing your ballot or casting it. Unfortunately, the "You are finished voting" message sounds like a final prompt, rather than a menu choice asking you if you are done and ready to cast your ballot. I managed to get out of that end menu and back into the ballot selection process, only to have to stop because the weed blower was back just outside the door again and so loud that it was totally swamping out the audio in my headphones. It was so loud that most voters would not have even been able to think. I gave up and requested that the pollworkers ask the gardener to wait till later to do the weed blowing.

After a total of 28 minutes at the voting machine, I was finished making my vote choices and began the ballot review, an unpausable five minute read out of the whole ballot, fiscal impact statements and all. From start to finish, it took me 34 minutes to vote what is, by California standards, a very short and simple ballot.

In contrast to our February primary election, when we never managed to get the Sequoia Edge machine to work for my voting, this June election went better, as we did finally get the machine working. However, if my wife and I were not computer scientists with special insider knowledge and experience with Sequoia Edge voting machines, I once again wouldn't have been able to vote privately and independently.

Sadly, despite having six previous elections under its belt, this county's learning curve seems to be flat and the reliability of accessible voting in the polling place has not improved.


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