Simitian Encourages County to Finally Improve Election System

After an election plagued by slow results, costly ballot misprints and the sudden resignation of a key top official, Santa Clara County is looking to improve its embattled Registrar of Voters Office.

“This is a seemingly never-ending conversation, something everyone seems to talk about every two years without getting anything done, ” said Supervisor Joe Simitian, who called for a review of the office. “I just thought this time, let’s tackle this and wrestle it to the ground.”

Ideally, he said, the county would buy entirely new ballot counting equipment—but that won’t happen for at least another few years. In the meantime, the county will consider hiring more people and ramping the office up to a 24-hour operation around Election Day to speed up vote counts. Simitian also wants to look at creating a policy that requires automatic recounts for close races.

"We need to establish public confidence in the system," he said. "Because what we’ve got right now is a process that is slow, cumbersome and not as well communicated as it can and should be."

Presenting to a special committee that convened Wednesday, Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey said the main reason this county is one of the slowest in the state in counting election tallies is because of its outdated equipment. Instead of counting results at each precinct and sending them in, they have to drive ballots back to the main office to be tabulated. She blamed third-party vendors for delays in posting results online and requested additional staffing to identify root causes of the problems. Read her entire report here.

But Sharon Sweeney, part of the seven-member Citizens Advisory Commission on Elections, said the office could speed things up by doing a better job of training what staff it has.

“There’s a culture problem,” she told San Jose Inside.

Sweeney sent a seven-page letter to supervisors (longer, if you include all the attachments of article clippings and other documents) picking apart Bushey’s report.

“The request for additional staffing is pre-mature given that the root cause(s) of problems have not been identified,” she wrote. “In other words, throwing more resources at a problem before it’s thoroughly known can complicate issues and could make matters worse. It might also be a misuse of taxpayer dollars. The bottom line is that the same issues that became evident during the most recent elections will continue to occur if there are no basic changes in the human element first.”

Bushey’s report, Sweeney continues, points to plenty of solutions, but fails to examine the root causes of the delays and failures this past election season. Bushey doesn’t mention the thousands of misprinted sample ballots and glosses over IT Manager Joseph Le's abrupt departure just before election night, when he reportedly walked out with his badge, county cellphone and "a hard drive loaded with voter information.”

In her report, Bushey says part of the reason results were so slow to post on election night was because of a server outage. Because the results web page was unavailable, they posted a scanned PDF copy of the results just after 10pm.

Sweeney says that’s not the whole story. A quarter past 10, she called Assistant Registrar of Voters Matt Moreles, asking about the lagging results.

“He answered my call immediately and told me that they were having issues uploading to and from the scanning machines and to the website,” Sweeney wrote. “Further, I asked why there were no results yet from the poll-voted ballot tallies. He told me that they were just receiving the materials and ballots from the polls and had just started running the ballots through the scanners. This information seems to be consistent with the ROV’s statement that they had one result update by approximately 10:07 p.m. My experience in past elections is that the first poll-voted tallies are usually reported earlier than that. What went wrong? The ROV’s report does not talk about this.”

She told supervisors that the ROV needs an independent review.

“The IT manager’s departure, the mishandled communications, the claim of media speculation, etc. has shed a strong beam of light on the Registrar of Voters’ operations and personnel,” Sweeney wrote. “The ROV’s report states that the November 2014 election ‘identified many opportunities to improve its processes and procedures.’ Yes, that same report fails to identify the root causes of their delays, mistakes and errors and fails to recognize their own human elements.”

Simitian agreed that training staff would be a useful short-term solution.

“It may not be the most exciting thing to talk about, but training is really important,” he said. “Unfortunately, whenever funds are short, one of the first things to get cut is training. And the county went through a very tough decade.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

15 Comments

  1. I moved to California last year and was surprised to find that they are still using paper ballots! I had been voting on an electronic or mechanical machine in New Jersey for over 30 years and thought that paper ballots were a relic. With a machine, you know that your vote was recorded. With paper ballots, you can unintentionally vote for 2 candidates, or not make the mark properly, and you will never know that your vote did not count. Haven’t we learned anything from the “hanging chads”?

    • New Jersey is one of the few states that still use only paperless voting machines. Machines such as are used in New Jersey are at risk of having the election results modified by software bugs or election-rigging malware in the machines. With paper ballots you can conduct post-election ballot audits and even conduct a total recount, if necessary. With paperless machines there is no way to check the results – no way to conduct a recount. There is consensus among computer scientists that paperless voting machines were a bad idea, which is why they are being scrapped throughout the country.

      In California we’ve been fortunate to have a couple of dedicated secretaries of state who have worked to make California one of the best states in the country for voting.

    • > With a machine, you know that your vote was recorded.

      I’ve been around since the dawn of the business computing age. There was a moment in time when “mini-computers” were the hottest thing going.

      Small businesses often did not grasp how computers worked. They often just seemed like magic.

      There was a common joke in the industry.

      A businessman asks a mini-computer salesman: “Can your computer do this, this, and this?”.

      The salesman says: “It can do anything. It’s programmable”.

      And that’s the problem. Electronic computers are programmable. By someone.

      There is now an entire industry built around defending computers against malicious programming by sneaky malicious programmers. Sneaky malicious programmers are called “hackers”.

      It may come as surprise, but hackers can hack voting machines.

      http://dailysignal.com/2014/11/04/watch-virginia-voting-machine-select-candidate-voter-didnt-vote/

      This might be considered an example of dumb hacking. A smart hacker would have DISPLAYED the vote the voter intended but RECORDED the vote for the candidate the hacker wanted.

  2. ROBERT MICHAEL:

    > That’s a fairly accurate analogy. Badly calibrated touchscreen, badly calibrated chad die, either one is a maintenance issue, not an act of malice.

    You’re in denial.

    FACT #1: People steal elections. They’ve been thinking up ways to steal elections since the beginning of elections.

    FACT #2: “Electronic voting” gives amoral power seekers a whole new bag of tricks for stealing elections.

    You can think up all the innocent explanations that your genius is capable of concocting, but sometimes people are crooks.

    And where power or money are involved, you can be sure that there are ALWAYS crooks.

    • Sigh.. OK you want to go down philosophical routes. Hold on while I pack a bowl, and release the carb on this bong.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

      As far as your facts. Fact 1 is a given, fact 2 has been true no matter what the technological advance in voting is. When votes were conducted by raised hands, people would bring fake arms. When we went to Ballots, people would steal ballot boxes, or pay off the people doing the counting.

      The point I’m trying to make on point 2 is, there is no such thing as a completely secure system. If you use Diebold as an example of what *should* be a secure system and is not, it is a horribly bad example. Most of us in the IT world know this. It’s basically a custom PC motherboard with epoxy in its USB ports (known as physical security) It runs windows. It is about the least secure platform in existence. The only reason we know this is because Diebold chose to have a closed source system (which is always an invitation for computer security professionals to poke at it with a stick)

      The one thing we do trust computer platforms for though is their lack of humanity. They can’t be swayed, bribed, or bought off with a night of hookers and cocaine. As long as the code on them is transparent and open, security professionals will poke it, tell you what’s wrong with it, and provide the needed code to fix it.

      I know for the average politico, this concept of open criticism is hard to follow, but we utilize it every day in our work.

  3. There was no “Reply” under Cousin Cortese’s response to me. I don’t do Facebook. Malice isn’t the point, Cousin Cortese. Paper or electronic have equal access to error. Computers and software are not the answer to all issues.

  4. And speaking of crooked elections, the best election fraud is where no one knows or suspects that fraud has occurred.

    To understand my point, fire up your VCR and replay your copy of “The Sting”.

    I think the political wise guys, certainly on the Republican side, were surprised at Romney’s loss in 2012. All of the explanations by the political class were, by my judgement, pretty lame.

    I thought it remarkable that Romney lost in almost every one of the close “battleground” states.

    I tried doing some calculations of the minimum number of votes that needed to switch from Obama to Romney to make Romney the winner.

    Bottom line, if Romney had the power to pick the places where the votes were switched, he could have won with a few additional tens of thousands of votes.

    The Republican consultant class thinks Romney lost because 4 or 5 million Republican voters stayed home.

    So, could the opposite have occurred? Could the Obama side have arranged for Romney to lose ten or twenty thousand votes in the most crucial election?

    What if . . .

    a malicious programmer (‘hacker”) inserted a few lines of code into some of the voting machines that randomly changed one of every twenty votes for Romney into a vote for Obama. A win for Romney by 2.5 percent would be turned into a win for Obama by 2.5 percent.

    There are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of lines of code in a voting machine and vote counting software. Finding 10 lines of malicious code would truly be finding a needle in a haystack.

    Virtually undetectable, and the voting results would show nothing that would appear “suspicious”.

    Impossible, you say? Voting machines are “secure” and guarded by “professionals”.

    The Iranians thought their nuclear program was secure until someone introduced a malicious “stuxnet” virus that caused their centrifuges to go crazy and derail their nuclear program.

    The lession of “high technology” is that if technology allows something to be done, someone will figure out how to do it, And sometimes those people who figure out how to do something don’t have your best interests in mind.

    • There are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of lines of code in a voting machine and vote counting software. Finding 10 lines of malicious code would truly be finding a needle in a haystack.
      Virtually undetectable, and the voting results would show nothing that would appear “suspicious”.
      Impossible, you say? Voting machines are “secure” and guarded by “professionals”.

      That’s the problem with voting machines. They’re not an open platform. Diebold holds its code closely, and there is no process in place for the public to view said code.

      Check this out then. Googles page for android roms.
      https://developers.google.com/android/nexus/images

      Notice how each has a MD5 and a SHA-1 checksum next to them? I’ll explain it a bit (I did above, but for ease of reading I’ll do it again)

      Checksums and open source are important to voting systems. While the average layman might not understand what these are for, for the computer professional our livelihoods depend on them. When source code is compiled, no matter what the machine is, you should be able to do some math on the binary produced by compiler. The result of that math, should be the same on any given machine. I think a good analogy is, it’s a fingerprint for software. This is what checksums are.

      Anytime there is a change to the source code, their checksum changes. In the case of voting machines, this is extremely important. All code on voting machines should be open. It should display a checksum. This lets the voter/public know that there is no funny business going on.

      Finding 10 lines of malicious code would truly be finding a needle in a haystack.

      There is infinitely more complex software that people have found malicious code in. I don’t think it would take a group of hackers no more than a few weeks to find malicious code in voting software.