Behind the scenes at San Diego registrar of voters
  • Behind the scenes at San Diego registrar of voters
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It's being pitched as the latest voting reform elixir, widely adopted by counties across the country, but a call for proposals to create and operate a so-called electronic voting book system for the San Diego County Registrar of Voters comes amidst rising questions about costs, reliability, and security against Russian hackers.

Registrar of Voters Michael Vu explained that burgeoning ballots were making San Diego's vote count the slowest of the state's 58 counties.

Registrar of Voters Michael Vu explained that burgeoning ballots were making San Diego's vote count the slowest of the state's 58 counties.

"The Electronic Poll Book system eliminates manual voter lookup, promoting shorter check-in queues with better and immediate alerts for staff or voter guidance," says the county's June 26 request for proposals, kicking off a solicitation for services from would-be vendors set to close July 25.

"The Electronic Poll Book system will decrease the time it takes to manually complete the election canvass while using fewer resources," per the document. "As the voter roster increases, the Electronic Poll Book system shall scale up. This allows the County to meet a growing base without impacting the voting experience."

But as with all such outsourcing, the devil is in the details, heavily dependent on the good faith and integrity of vendors, and experiences elsewhere have flashed repeated warnings about the cutting-edge systems.

Among the flurry of concerns have been reports that in November 2016 Russian agents may have tried to hack Durham County North Carolina poll books provided by Florida-based voting technology company VR Systems

“It would be great to know what vulnerabilities exist that we need to be preventing,” Josh Lawson, former general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, told the Washington Post earlier this month.

“It’d be nice to know how [poll books] can be gotten to, and if they’re gotten to, what that can look like.”

Word of the potential hacking came in the April report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III regarding alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In a June 16 editorial, the Post asserted that the Department of Homeland Security has been slow to respond to the charges.

"The company from which Durham County got its polling book software, VR Systems, claims that it did not hear from DHS until September 2017, months after a news report revealed that the Russians had targeted an election services firm matching its description, and that, when it did hear, word came in the form of a strange 2 a.m. phone call," said the paper.

"Following the report, North Carolina officials investigated Durham County’s polling book laptops but concluded they needed technical help. The state asked DHS to conduct a forensic examination. But Homeland Security has only just agreed to do so — a year and a half after North Carolina requested help."

The festering controversy has caused North Carolina election officials to withhold certification of voting technology contractors until the firms disclose the composition of their ownership, the Associated Press reported June 14.

Mueller's finding, "essentially says everybody should be concerned about this and everybody should be looking harder at a lot of these things to make sure we're protected as best we can be," Robert Cordle, head of the North Carolina state elections board, told the wire service. "It's just a matter of doing our due diligence now to make sure there are no problems."

Noted the account, "Maryland officials learned last year that a company maintaining their election infrastructure did not disclose that it was being financed for more than two years by a venture fund whose largest investor is a Russian oligarch."

San Diego county's latest call for poll book proposals is part of a radical high-tech makeover revealed here in February intended to fix San Diego's county glitch-prone and plodding vote-counting effort.

After delayed results of November's 2018 election, Registrar of Voters Michael Vu explained to Washington's The Hill that burgeoning ballots were swamping the legacy system and responsible for making San Diego's vote count the slowest of the state's 58 counties.

"In San Diego County, there are 594 different ballot combinations," said The Hill in a November 10 report headlined, "Why California Counts its Ballots so Slowly."

"The longest, a multi-card ballot, is four and a half feet long when laid out end to end. When a voter goes to the wrong precinct or casts a provisional ballot, the county determines which races that voter is eligible to vote on and counts those votes, rather than throwing out the entire ballot."

No price estimates for the county's new system are included in the vendor solicitation, but costs and technical complications could be considerable, judging by the requirements listed.

"The County is seeking an Electronic Poll Book vendor-hosted software as a solution (SaaS), with associated hardware, that is secure, cost-effective, utilizes modern technology, and is fully compatible in any voting model compliant with California law." notes the document.

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Cassander July 1, 2019 @ noon

Even if—and that's a mighty big "if"—the security concerns could be resolved, poll e-books don't fix the problem they're claimed to.

Supposedly the big plus with this system is that anyone registered could show up at any polling station to vote. But there's still the issue that ballots are tied to the location, and so would still have ineligible or missing options. What would be gained by not printing a voter roster for each of the 1,000+ polling stations, would be lost by having to print enough copies of each of the "594 different ballot combinations" for all of them. Already one can imagine the lines and wait times to vote getting even longer.

Looking at the big picture, I think electronic rosters are just a way to force us to use electronic ballots—which experience has shown are an unacceptable security risk. The only solution I can see that ensures a paper ballot trail and solves the wait issues is to have universal mail voting, like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, and set up just 50 or so polling stations countywide to handle those with issues.

But I doubt the ROV is willing to do this, as it would diminish its power.


swell July 1, 2019 @ 5:10 p.m.

I was a technical volunteer at the first SD election with computers. I explained to voters how to use the machines and that part went pretty well. We had no known machine failures in my precinct.

But the machines were made by Diebold Election Systems, Inc. Walden "Wally" O'Dell, chairman of the board and chief executive of Diebold, was a long-time funder of Republican candidates. This company and the other two providing voting machines with the help of Republican friends are all suspected of fraud and corruption. Have the new 2019 technologies been vetted for such shenanigans?

Many of my geek friends don't trust any machine tech that doesn't leave a clear paper trail that can be counted by humans for verification. Some think that a hardware/software solution can work--but it must be entirely 'open source'. That means every component of the hardware and software is open to public scrutiny; there is no proprietary (secret) content where naughty things could happen.

"This allows the County to meet a growing base without impacting the voting experience." -- Growing base? I've been voting by mail for most or possibly all of this century. I assume that every year more and more voters sign up to vote by mail. Shouldn't this be making work easier for the County?



AlexClarke July 2, 2019 @ 6:33 a.m.

The only way to insure that each vote counts is manual fill-in-the-oval paper ballots. While technology is great it is too easily corrupted. A paper trail is necessary to ensure that elections are not tampered with.


Ponzi July 2, 2019 @ 10:34 a.m.

From my experience as a poll worker in eight elections, the electronic ballot system will not work out well. Presently, each poll sets up one electronic voting booth, usually designated for disabled individuals. (They may be from the leftover Diebolds). They are a pain to set up, they can easily be dropped and damaged. They take forever to boot-up and get ready for voters. There is one card that is used by the poll and if that card gets lost, damaged or stolen, you can’t use that machine until you get a replacement card. You have to also give the voter their own card to insert to begin the electronic voting process. If they lose or take that card, then again the machine can’t be used.

Then you have user issues with the interface. Some people are just not up to speed with ATM’s, Kiosks, or any type of touch screen technology. We would sometimes have to stand there and help them through the screen, which then tends to violate their voting privacy. Then you have the people that want to recast their vote. We could not figure out how to undo the electronic vote for them, with more training we learned the tricks. It’s a lot to expect from people who are just trying to do some civic good working the polls and after a 14 hour day, you can get tired and forgetful. With paper ballots we just ripped it in half and put it in the spoiled ballot box for counting and reconciliation when the poll closed.

During those eight elections, which spanned about 12 years, I noticed that more and more voters on the roster were mail-in ballot voters. The last time in 2018, a full 60% of voters in my precinct were mail-ballot voters. Also many precincts were being consolidated or eliminated as less physical locations were necessary because of the mail-in ballot trend.

Sure the ballots are getting longer, two pages sometimes. I just can’t imagine the problems and time that be consumed if it all goes to electronics. Some people love coming to the polls, almost a social event for many that I would see at each election. Many people need help and many others will not enjoy the machines as much as the paper ballots they have used (and trusted) all their voting years. I think machines will have a chilling effect on the turnout of senior citizens.

I realize new technology will eliminate some of the problems I experienced, but the more technology you throw at the problem, the less transparent the process becomes. All counties across the state and country may end up using wildly different systems or procedures if they go to electronic voting. At least with paper ballots, at the poll or mailed in, we can have a paper trail. Elections are held every two years, unless there is a special election (which are usually localized) and I feel this is one government service that should not be cutting corners or trying to fix something that works on paper.


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