California Mulls A Punch-Card Free Future

The Golden State will become the fourth in the country to outlaw punch cards, following the lead of Maryland, Florida and Georgia. It could also face the most complicated and costly upgrade as it looks to move its punch card machines from polling places to scrap heaps by 2006.

California Secretary of State Bill Jones announced last week the state would rid itself of the 1960s-era punch cards and counters still used in nine counties. But a minefield of lawsuits, funding problems and supply problems could make Jones' well-received announcement a logistical nightmare.

Changing the way half of California's population votes, including more than 4.1 million registered voters in Los Angeles County, will take a combination of careful planning and voter and poll worker education, aside from at least $200 million in state and local funds.

Los Angeles voters have used punch cards since the 1960s. Changing will not be easy, said county registrar Conny McCormack. Unlike some Florida counties, which have already started upgrading from punch cards to optical scanners, McCormack said her sprawling district will be not be able to use the paper required by the optical systems. Instead, the county will have to spend an estimated $100 million purchasing touch-screen voting machines that will be able to serve voters with disabilities as well as display ballots in seven different languages using three distinct Asian character sets.

A bill passed by the legislature would aid the nine counties with $200 million in state funds. Gov. Gray Davis is expected to sign the measure, which is now on his desk. Some extra funding could come from Congress, where a number of election reform bills were advancing before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Virginia.

Finding the money, however, does not begin to complete the task.

"People don't understand that this isn't like buying $100 million in new cars. This is a new voting system and people don't know how to use it. There is a huge logistical and deployment curve," McCormack said. "It's a huge endeavor."

To introduce new machines to the county in time for 2006 will require a vendor with both the production capacity to serve the county's 5,000 precincts as well as have the technological capability to display three unique Asian language characters. McCormack said "vendor scarcity" could be a major obstacle in having the county ready in time.

Then there are the other eight counties that must replace their machines as well. They could be left in Los Angeles' massive shadow, unable to find vendors to meet their demands.

Not all of California has decided to move directly to touch-screen systems. Kim Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation, said there has not been any agreement in the state about what system is best for the state.

"Initially, a lot of people thought computerized voting would be the next step," Alexander said. "In the last nine months, there have been studies on new voting technology and a lot of policy questions have been raised about the use of computers in the voting process."

Those questions center on whether touch-screens can be accurate, secure and offer an all-important paper trail in the case of a close election. If those questions are not answered, California's counties now looking to replace punch cards could select systems that could potentially have the same failings.

San Diego County, with more than 1.4 million voters, will face the same choice. Solano County, with its 190,000 registered voters, expects to pay $5 million for a new touch-screen system. Laura Winslow, the county's registrar, told the Associated Press Solano would take "a big hit" funding the upgrade.

The issue could become even more complicated depending upon the outcome of a lawsuit now moving through the state's legal system. The California ACLU sued Secretary of State Jones earlier this year, charging the state with violating the equal protection of its residents by using "voting machines of widely disparate quality."

ACLU leaders have already dismissed Jones' timetable as too lenient, forcing voters to endure unequal standards on voting machines for as long as five more years.

If the lawsuit succeeds, the nine counties that are now scheduled to replace punch cards within five years might have to act much sooner. That task, McCormack said, would be nearly impossible.

"We think we can make 2006, but if the timeline changes, we don't know," McCormack said.

California voters will make the final decision on state funding in an election next March. Alexander was quick to point out those who will be affected most by the decision will cast their ballots on punch card systems, giving them a "lesser chance" of having their votes counted correctly.

In other election reform news:

  • New York City voters returned to the polls Sept. 25 to vote in a primary that was stopped two weeks earlier in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Turnout was reportedly light and few voters changed their choices in the wake of the attacks.
  • Michigan released a task force report on election reform last month which called for better poll worker training, a statewide adoption of voting machines that identify voter errors at precincts and allow voters to correct mistakes and recommends no-excuse absentee ballots. State Sen. Dianne Byrum, a Democrat, said the report offered a bipartisan consensus on voting reforms that would "repair the road to democracy" in the state.