In 2008, King County will be the largest county in the nation to experiment with its voting systems — in the midst of a presidential election. As a result of the move, the much-criticized King County Elections Division wants to find signature-verification software that doesn’t exist yet – no company makes a product good enough for an election. Then, it wants to add 18 new vote tabulators and software that aren’t yet certified -- from Diebold, a company synonymous in progressive political circles with accusations of election fraud.
Sound hard to swallow? Jason Osgood says it will be come November 2008 if the King County elections division proceeds with what he calls its recipe for disaster.
Osgood is with a small, homespun group called Washington Citizens for Fair Elections, which has been critical of the elections division’s plans as it moves to vote-by-mail. With more mail-in signatures to verify and its old tabulators giving out, the elections office says it needs to upgrade its software and equipment to speed the process, get returns earlier, and avoid repeating the vote-counting debacle of 2004.
But Osgood says it’s not an upgrade the elections office is after. It’s a whole new system with lots of changes that he says shouldn’t be tried out in a presidential year. Among them, he says the elections division will shut down precinct polls, create new regional voting centers, and do away with paper ballots at the sites in favor of touch-screen voting.
The voting centers are intended for the disabled and those who prefer to vote in person rather than mail back the ballot that all registered voters will receive. Osgood says that will leave people wandering around on election day trying to find polling centers that he expects to be jammed when voters show up.
“They’re going to have 17 regional voting centers with 42,000 people coming through them and they think all of these people are going to show up over the course of the day, not at 5 p.m. on the day of the election,” he says. But that’s “exactly what happens on election day.”
After reviewing equipment options from four vendors, the elections division is also asking the County Council for new Diebold software to go with 18 new tabulators, or ballot-counting machines, made by a company called DRS. But most of the $1.7 million cost, says elections spokesperson Bobbie Egan, will be paid by a grant already obtained under the federal Help America Vote Act.
“The purpose of King County Elections recommending and needing the DRS scanners and updated Diebold software is because the tabulators right now are outdated and have reached their capacity,” Egan says. “We do not think they will uphold adding 300,000 more poll voters to our tabulation load.”
Osgood disagrees, arguing that you can’t count what you don’t have. In most elections, only a third of the mail-in ballots cast by absentee voters are received by election day – the rest are mailed that day – making the current tabulators suitable at least through the presidential vote.
“Out of 900,000 ballots,” he says, “King County Elections is predicting they’ll have 600,000 available to count on election day. But they can’t. It’s not possible – they [won’t have] received them yet.”
Egan counters that most people don’t understand the difference between ballots received and ballots ready to count, which includes signature verification and removing the ballot from its envelopes. In 2006, she says, the elections division had 125,000 ballots that were in house and ready to count, but could only tabulate 45,521 of them because of the slowness of the old tabulators.
She also says the software and equipment Diebold is selling will be certified, or approved by the Secretary of State, in time for the presidential election, which will not be the first time all the new systems are used.
“We’re not going to pull the switch and all of a sudden all the systems are running together,” Egan says. “We’ve proposed phasing it in” in smaller elections. But, “It’s really important that we have the equipment to do it successfully, to handle adding the equivalent of Pierce County to our mail balloting.”
But Osgood says no one knows if the Diebold software and tabulators can handle the job because no one has ever used the combination in a U.S. election. King County would be the first.
“Test them before you buy them,” Osgood says. “Don’t buy them, then test them.