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New CVF Policy Brief - Modernizing CA Voting Technology: A Look Back, A Look Ahead

January 31, 2013

Over the past decade, California, like other states, has experienced rapid changes in the way our citizens cast ballots. To better inform this important area of public policy, the California Voter Foundation has published a new policy brief titled, "Modernizing California's Voting Technology - A Look Back, A Look Ahead."

This 15-page brief tells the story of the rise and fall of punch card voting, followed by the adoption and subsequent removal of electronic voting systems, and today's ongoing efforts by Los Angeles County to forge an alternative, non-commercial path for designing and procuring a new voting system. It is our hope this brief will help inform policy discussions about the next steps we need to take to improve voting systems in our state.

I presented this brief last week at the first "Future of California Elections" conference in Sacramento, and am indebted to my FOCE colleagues for their help with developing it, and to the James Irvine Foundation for its support.

At the conference, I participated on a panel focused on identifying election reform priorities for 2013 and beyond. In addition to considering reforms to the way we fund, test and certify voting systems, my remarks also focused on two key findings:

  1. Despite the fact that California erects none of the voter participation barriers seen in other states (ID requirements, restrictive registration rules, limits on vote-by-mail voting), we continue to rate among the bottom of all states in terms of eligible voter participation.

  2. Vote-by-mail voting is popular but also problematic: statewide, 2 percent of all VBM ballots cast in the 2008 presidential election were not counted due to voter error (such as arriving too late to be counted or lack of signature). This is the same error rate we saw with the Votomatic voting machines that led to their removal. CVF is recommending increased research into the vote-by-mail ballot error rate to better inform what steps we need to take to reduce the number of unsuccessful vote-by-mail ballots and increase participation.

My Powerpoint presentation is available online, and other conference speakers' remarks are also available through the Future of California Elections' conference agenda web page. An excerpt of the policy brief is featured below. Your comments and questions are welcome and appreciated!

-- Kim Alexander, President & Founder
California Voter Founda

Modernizing California's Voting Technology - A Look Back, A Look Ahead

California Voter Foundation Policy Brief
By Kim Alexander, President & Founder
January 23, 2013

This policy brief was developed in collaboration with the Future of California Elections (FoCE), a diverse, nonpartisan coalition of California election administrators, reform advocates and leaders of civil rights organizations working together to increase voter participation and improve the effectiveness of elections in California, with support from the James Irvine Foundation. The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Doug Chapin, Efrain Escobedo, Eugene Lee, Dean Logan, Pam Smith and Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith for their assistance with this brief.

Over the past decade, California has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new voting equipment. Other states likewise have spent tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade voting systems. This policy brief summarizes the recent history of California voting systems, the federal and state legislation that paved the way for counties to purchase new equipment beginning in 2002, and Los Angeles County's ongoing efforts to modernize its voting system. It offers policy questions to consider that could help facilitate the successful development, acquisition and deployment of a new voting system for Los Angeles County, which would also benefit all other jurisdictions in the state by giving them more choices when considering future voting system upgrades.

Punch Card Voting and Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County, today the most populous and complex county election jurisdiction in the state and nation, was hand counting paper ballots prior to the 1968 Primary election, when the county introduced voters to the "Votomatic" punch card voting system. By that time several other counties had also adopted this voting system, including Humboldt, Marin, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Solano (in 1966), and Monterey and San Joaquin (in 1964). In addition to Los Angeles, Fresno and Tulare also debuted the Votomatic system in 1968.

The name "Votomatic" was derived from a shoeshine machine called the "Shine-O-Matic" and was developed by Joseph P. Harris and William Rouverol, professors at the University of California at Berkeley. As the former, longtime member of the Secretary of State's Election Division staff Ed Arnold recaps in his 1999 report, "History of Voting Systems in California":

"A voter uses the Votomatic by inserting a prescored ballot into the top of the voting device. A ballot booklet of candidates' names and issues to be voted is affixed in the voting device. Alongside the choices printed on each page, arrows point to holes that match numbered rectangles on the underlying card. The voter turns the pages and punches out the rectangles that express his or her choices by a stylus chained to the device... .The completed ballot is then placed in the ballot envelope, which will be dropped in the ballot box."

To paraphrase Arnold, the Votomatic had its advantages and disadvantages. Unlike mechanical lever machines, which were widely used throughout California and the United States by the early 1960's, the Votomatic system included a paper audit trail of each individual vote that could be used to check the results. The amount of time needed to cast ballots was less than with the mechanical lever machines. Hundreds of contests could be featured on a single ballot which was incredibly efficient, particularly in large counties with growing numbers of voters such as Los Angeles. The system was also affordable and easy to store and transport, unlike mechanical lever machines.

But the Votomatic system had drawbacks as well. The "hanging chad" and "dimpled chad" issue, where a prescored selection box had been punched but not completely removed, was a known problem, at least among some California election officials and candidates, by 1980. (continued...)

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CVF uses Twitter to help our audience connect with important news and developments in the field of voting and elections, and also to offer live tweeting from conferences and events. An archive of tweets and links to relevant stories is available at!/kimalex3

Follow @kimalex3 on Twitter to get the new, opinion and analysis from CVF's president. Follow @calvoterfdn for CVF announcements.

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The California Voter Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting and applying the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process. CVF-NEWS is a free, electronic newsletter featuring news and updates about the California Voter Foundation's projects and activities.

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This page was first published on February 1, 2013 | Last updated on February 28, 2013
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