Abundance of Caution
Santa Clara County’s machines, although never compromised, were deemed highly susceptible to viruses and vote manipulation. In their report, scientists found, amongst other concerns, that the Sequoia machines’ cryptography could be easily circumvented. A memory stick containing a virus could easily corrupt one machine and potentially infect others if linked together in a precinct. That type of hack might not even be detectable down the line.
Later, however, Bowen recertified the county’s Sequoia machines to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, forcing each precinct to have one DRE (direct-recording electronic) voting machine—even though anyone can use the machine if they want.
County Executive Jeff Smith, who came on board in 2009, sounded dubious regarding why the machines would be good enough for the most vulnerable voters but not everyone else.
“The information that I have, which granted is not everything that exists, is that the only way these machines were cracked is with multiple individuals sitting at the machine, hooked into the machine, and that’s just not something that could possible happen at a precinct,” Smith says. “It’s pretty much impossible to imagine somebody sitting at a precinct cracking into a machine.”
But with the county’s requests to recertify the machines dismissed—and virtually no one still with the county seems to remember exactly what efforts were made to get them back into compliance—the ROV reverted back to what’s known as a “central-count voting system,” in which every paper ballot must be returned to the ROV office after polls close at 8pm. The ballots must then be hand-fed into machines that use optical scan technology to process results.
DRE results, on the other hand, are submitted via an electronic cartridge from each precinct. The centralized counting not only has slowed the tabulation process of votes cast on Election Day to a crawl—it also delays the commencement of absentee ballot counting.
Bushey afforded San Jose Inside a tour of the ROV’s internal processes—an assembly line with the jagged edges of a gerrymander. First, absentee ballot envelopes are fed into a machine that scans signatures and sorts ballots twice by precinct. Nearby, a few dozen people in a room several doors down open envelopes and flatten ballots for scanning. There, 14 machines count and spit out ballots rapid fire—although they are so hammered that one went down. Bushey says the tabulating devices are so old that replacements and parts are impossible to find.
Processed ballots are marked with red ink near the top and bottom, banded together and then boxed and stored behind a steel metal curtain in what’s known as “The Blue Room.” It’s basically a holding pen and looks like a batting cage. Complaints about the length of the process have rolled in to the ROV over the course of the last week, but Bushey says election observers should understand the limitations.
“They should look at their expectations,” she says. “I mean, November 2012, I went and looked at our last results: 4:36 in the morning. I mean this is nothing new, that it takes us all throughout the night to do this. I really don’t know how anyone out there would expect results 11 or 12 o’clock.”
Outside of Bushey’s office last Friday, a few dozen county employees sifted through vote-by-mail ballots while Cortese’s supporters and operatives of the San Jose mayor’s race’s presumptive winner, Sam Liccardo, observed the process. As she provided a tour, motivational signs that could conceivably line a high-school locker room or dentist’s hallways could be found at every turn. They featured buzzwords and inspirational one-offs like: “Excellence—Some excel because they are destined to, most excel because they are determined to.”
Bushey installed them after assuming control of the ROV on a permanent basis in February. Discussing them brings tears to her eyes.
“Sorry,” she says. “It’s just I love this place. I love the people here, and I’ve worked with them a long time. And to me, as [important] as a voting system and running this office is how you treat your employees.”
Bushey points to the inspirational sign above her desk, which features the march of the penguins and the words: “Walk the Talk.”
“Why do you think this is the first one, the one I look at the most?” she asks.
“Because you love penguins?”
“No,” she says matter-of-factly. “It was to remind me to walk the talk. Treat people good. Be good. Do a good job. Be ethical. It’s my talk. I better walk it.”
Accurate, not fast
So, how did the county screw up by picking a hackable voting system? It’s a question few seem interested in answering. Even Bushey, who has been with the office for 19 years, can’t recall why Sequoia was selected. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Kathryn Ferguson, the county ROV up until 2002, may have influenced the purchase that was made a year later. She left her county job to take a position with Sequoia, but there’s no indication she was involved in the vendor selection process a year later.
Bushey prefers to focus on the future, even if that remains uncertain. Once the results for this election are certified—the deadline is Dec. 2—Bushey says the ROV will take a closer look at technology it hopes will be ready in the next two years, with a new voting system possibly in place by 2017.
“I want people to get the results fast, because I know they’re anxious,” she says. “And of course I would love to update my voting system.
“Logically, in my mind, it only makes sense to hold off a couple years, because we’ll have new technology options,” she continues. “If I was to go out and buy equipment last year, or this year, or two years ago, I’m buying technology that is 15 years old. Ours is working fine. The process of what it produces is accurate. It’s just not fast.”
The increase in absentee ballots would also limit any improvements made in tallying precinct votes, which can’t be opened until after 8pm. County figures show that approximately 80,000 vote-by-mail ballots were cast in November 2002, compared to nearly 200,000 this year.
“I think it’s the perfect storm—with the ever increasing popularity in absentee mail and the fact that a lot of people still like to drop their vote-by-mail ballot at polls,” Slocum says.
“And I think it comes down to money. It’s an expensive proposition to replace a voting system. Not only is there the acquisition cost of the assets, but then there is training and manuals and testing. Basically, everything has to be redone. All of that takes time. You try to do these things in a non-presidential year, which is probably why she’s saying 2017.”
Political consultant Jude Barry, who has worked on voter registration technology around the country, is not alone in arguing that the county’s approach is shortsighted.
“It’s truly a systemic problem, because there’s little incentive for local governments to spend the resources on something that happens every two years,” Barry says. “But it’s a mistake. It makes local government look incompetent.”