Monday, December 11, 2000 
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Section: Metro 
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County Studies Plan for New Voting Machines

Elections: Supervisors examine proposal to spend $100 million for touch screens, which some say are vulnerable to tampering.

With national attention riveted on how chads in Florida have thrown the nation into an electoral morass, Los Angeles County officials are thinking about ditching punch-card machines and spending $100 million on the newest in paperless technology. 

Three of the five members of the Board of Supervisors say the county needs to upgrade its voting machines, although they said any move might have to be made in small, more affordable steps. 

"You can't keep the same system after what we've been through," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. 

Less than two days before Florida punch-card devices put the 2000 election on hold, Registrar-Recorder Conny B. McCormack briefed her bosses about the county's creaky election machinery. She also reported on an experiment at nine locations with 38 high-tech voting gizmos called touch screens.

 They can count in seven languages, talk to blind people and spit out answers faster than a politician's spin machine.

 The Board of Supervisors recently ordered her to give a report on "tamper-proof" voting technology in January.

 Many computer scientists strongly urge caution.

 They vehemently debate the vulnerability of electronic voting to tampering, but election officials say the machines have won voters' trust. More than 20,000 Los Angeles County voters tried touch-screen machines at nine locations during a special early voting program that let people cast ballots from Oct. 16 through Nov. 6, the day before the election.

 Yaroslavsky voted on one and came away impressed. He said last week the county needs to buy touch screens or some other high technology that is faster and more accurate than the ancient punch-card devices.

 Conceivably, the county could slog along with its punch-card Votomatics, Yaroslavsky said.

 "But I don't think voters would stand for it. This is a national issue now," he said of election methods nationwide.

 Supervisor Don Knabe, who was instrumental in launching the touch-screen experiment, spent part of a day at a location watching voters use them.

 "They had the old voting machine booths out there next to new ones, and all of the old ones were empty," Knabe said. "It was efficient, and instant tabulation is a significant factor. There was a blind lady voting without assistance for the first time. There were tears in her eyes."

 Yvonne Braithwaite Burke thinks upgrading "is a great idea," said a representative, Glenda Wina.

 Although machines impress her and the other supervisors, so does the cost.

 Said Knabe: "There's no way we'd have that kind of money upfront for the whole system. But I would support it in phases."

 Yaroslavsky said the state or federal governments probably will help. Without a match of 75%, such an upgrade would be out of the question, he said.

 Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Gloria Molina did not return phone calls seeking comment.

 If financing appears and no other major obstacles arise, McCormack thinks she could outfit the entire county with touch screens by 2004.

 Despite the debate over cost and security, she and most election officials seeking upgrades have a lot in their favor, starting with the Florida debacle.

 "If I had needed to ask for $2 million last month to upgrade my system, the supervisors would say, 'Give me a break,' " said Tony Bernhard, the clerk-recorder of California's Yolo County. "But now, if I had to go there next month, they'd say, 'OK, let's take a look at it.' "

 California voters can relate to Florida's problems. The Votomatic machines in Los Angeles and in five other counties are identical to Florida's. They are just as vulnerable to floating, dangling and dimpling punch-card chads.

 Although 2.6 million ballots zipped through Los Angeles County's card readers Nov. 7, a presidential election in 1996 still stirs bad memories. The count slowed to a snail's pace when eight of 24 readers "went on the fritz" with more than 1 million ballots still uncounted, McCormack said. Counting went on until dawn.

 This year, a setup mistake marred an otherwise successful launching of Riverside County's $14-million touch-screen system. The computer expert didn't provide enough capacity for all votes. The count stalled at 11 p.m., after 90% of the votes had been counted.

 Still, the devices, called direct recording machines, were a big hit, Registrar Mischelle Townsend said, adding that the computer has been fixed and will never run out of capacity again.

 Such problems provide grist for critics: If computers mistakenly award votes to a candidate because a programmer erred, they also can do it because someone tried to help a friend.

 "Even if I wrote the codes for a system, I still wouldn't trust it," said Peter Neumann, a researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park and an authority on computer security. "How would I know that the code I wrote was the one that was put in the system?"

 Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, said voters still need assurance that the computer accurately records the votes they cast. "A lot of people, including me, can write a program that will show one thing on the screen and send something different to the disk."

 Riverside County's model, from Sequoia Pacific Systems of Exeter, is similar to the machine used in Los Angeles. It puts the ballot on a screen and lets people review their votes before casting them.

 When the ballot appears on the screen, voters make their choices by touching anywhere in a boxed area around the candidate's name.

 After completing the ballots, voters can check their choices by pressing a review button and make changes if they wish. When they finish, they push a "cast vote" button, which is supposed to store the vote in the computer and in a removable memory cartridge. 

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times.