Officials see significant errors in electronic voting test run 

Voting advocates concerned about upcoming election

SAN MATEO — Numerous human errors reported during pre-election tests of new electronic voting machines have voting advocates worried that similar mistakes will be repeated by county voters in two weeks.

With the election scheduled for Nov. 7, test votes cast by trained personnel Thursday, which was the first day of pre-election tests of the new equipment, failed to match up to the voting "scripts" they were given by elections officials 40 percent of the time, David Tom, county elections manager, said. The number of errors in the so-called Logic and Accuracy tests dropped to 25 percent on Wednesday and about 14 percent on Friday, with all errors eliminated by Monday morning, Tom said.

All of the errors were attributed to tester error, most often caused when a tester failed to select the predetermined candidate in the "script" they were following or mistakenly skipped a race altogether, Tom said. "The equipment was new to them, so there was a higher number of errors than we would like," Tom said.

Voting advocates, however, said the high prevalence of errors in using the machines — which required the elections department to extend the number of test days from three to six — raises concerns about whether voters will be able to operate the eSlate machines, made by Hart InterCivic. "I witnessed two adults at each of the eight test machines whose sole purpose was to input test votes correctly and for there to be such a high rate of human error is hard to believe," said Brent Turner, founder the San Mateo Election Integrity League and a member of the California Election Protection Network.

A roaming elections official was also present to assist with questions during the test, officials said.

The mistakes were made in spite of eSlate voting machine protocol that questions voters on their selections — including races they left blank — and provides a printed verifiable ballot, said Dennis Paull, a county poll inspector and election observer for the Democratic Central Committee.

Because he has doubts about the eSlate machines’ ability to correctly tally votes, he plans to encourage voters to thoroughly check the printed ballot, Paull said. About 472 eSlate machines offering 58 different ballots throughout the county will be used in the November election.

The adoption of electronic voting systems across the county is being spurred by the Help America Vote Act, passed by federal lawmakers in 2002. The act requires counties to adopt state-certified voting machines that allow the disabled to vote privately and independently.

Similar problems cropped up in a pre-testing in Pinellas County, Florida prior to the Sept. 5 primary election on machines made by another company. The errors occurred when a technician modified the voter database, reportedly to upgrade it, but the cause remains unknown, according to Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, CEO of San Francisco-based verifiedvoting.org.

"I think it is an area where heightened scrutiny is warranted," Strickland Bhatia said. "It’s more important in these days with electronic machines, because the L&A test is one of the only checks on the system."

Voting costs more this time around

» Before voters drop their absentee ballots in the mail, election officials have a reminder: The standard 39-cent stamp won’t pay the postage to get it to the county elections office.

» While still supermodel-thin when held up against San Francisco’s half-dozen pages, San Mateo County’s two-page ballots need 63 cents worth of stamps, said David Tom, elections manager. "This is the largest ballot we’ve had in seven years," he said.

» The bulked-up ballots are a result of the large number of state propositions and the many judgeship races, officials said. In June, the majority of voters in the county cast absentee votes for the first time. A total of 72,000 voters, or nearly 56 percent of those who cast ballots, voted absentee, according to County Chief Elections Chief Warren Slocum.

» A comparable problem occurred before the November elections in San Francisco in 2000, when oversized ballots required 99 cents in postage, or three standard 33-cent first-class stamps at the time.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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