Why is it Necessary to Replace the Voting System?
Concerns about outdated voting systems are not new. In 2002, after now-infamous stories of various Election Day problems and ballots with “hanging chads,” Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) which, among other things, encouraged local elections officials to replace their voting equipment with modern technologies that improved voter access but also prevented problems like hanging chads or user-error that could cause a voter’s ballot to be rejected.
For many years prior to 2002, Sonoma County has used Mark-A-Vote, a paper-based, optical scan voting system which consisted of a paper ballot that is marked by the voter with a pen or pencil, then read by optical scan machinery and tabulated by a vote-counting program (BCWin). Because the majority of voters in Sonoma County vote by mail, retaining a paper-based system was preferred. Seeing no comparable system or urgency to replace it, Sonoma County chose to do minimal upgrades that ensured compliance with federal law. Sonoma County received approval to use a “blended” voting system that allowed continued use of the Mark-A-Vote paper-based system supplemented by disabled-accessible electronic voting machines for polling places.
Like all modern technology, voting systems rely on software that becomes obsolete quickly. Voting systems purchased after HAVA passed in 2002 are now 15+ years old! Aging systems have parts that are rare or no longer manufactured, and software that is no longer supported by manufacturers. What’s more, the software version included with the voting system when it was certified may not be altered; programming changes are forbidden and only minor software updates might be allowed with Secretary of State approval.
Why Does Replacement Need to Happen Now?
In May 2017, the California Secretary of State issued a press release in which Secretary Alex Padilla discussed legislation he sponsored that would help counties update voting equipment: “The need to replace our voting systems is not a new issue, nor is it a partisan issue,” Secretary of State Padilla said. “Many counties are grappling with voting equipment that is perilously near its life expectancy. We have a responsibility and a duty to modernize our voting equipment for future elections. An investment in modern voting systems will help protect the integrity of our elections and better serve voters.”
In a March 2017 report to the California Legislature, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) wrote, “In one example, a county’s system had a failed part that no longer is supported by the manufacturer or easy to replace. The county purchased a replacement part through eBay. In another example, a county uses the same system it used in the 1990s….it currently relies on computers that operate on Microsoft Windows XP.” The LAO report used these examples to raise concerns about the “possibility of a catastrophic failure of voting systems in counties.”
Stories like this had already caught the attention of federal officials who also warned of the situation facing all elections officials. In 2014, President Obama’s Commission on Election Administration issued a report that included this passage: “Perhaps the direst warning the Commission heard in its investigation concerned the impending crisis in voting technology. Well-known to election administrators, if not the public at large, this impending crisis arises from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago …”
In its 2011-2012 Final report, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury stated: “the system for counting all ballots is outdated and will be obsolete in coming years. The county has done a good job maintaining the system to date but needs to upgrade it and replace outdated software. If the system is allowed to become obsolete, the integrity of the voting process in Sonoma County could be jeopardized.” The Civil Grand Jury further recommended that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors support efforts to replace the outdated ballot counting system.
Who Decides Which Voting System The County Will Use?
The Registrar of Voters Office will utilize the County’s formal bidding process commonly referred to as an “RFP,” or “Request for Proposal.” RFPs typically contain several sections including a problem statement, background, and services or materials being sought that perform a specific function. The Registrar of Voters will announce this opportunity in partnership with the County’s Purchasing Department; RFPs are posted on a dedicated web page on the County’s website along with an invitation for vendors to “bid,” or submit a proposal.
Once the deadline to submit a proposal has passed, a committee of county staff with expertise in elections, computer and information systems, and budget evaluate the bids based on the vendor’s responses to a specific list of requirements in the RFP. County employees who have a relationship with a person or business entity submitting a proposal are not allowed to participate in the selection process; in fact, a person or business entity that intends to submit a proposal is mandated to advise the County of a relationships with its employee who may be involved in the evaluation and selection process. The committee will select a winning proposal, then make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors that the contract be awarded to the recommended (winning) proposal.
What Are The County's Options For a New Voting System?
Due to extensive federal testing requirements as well as California law that requires unique, rigorous testing by the Secretary of State, there are few companies that manufacture voting systems for use in California. Information about voting technology vendors may be found on the Secretary of State’s website, along with Office of Voting Systems Technology Assessment (OVSTA) updates on voting technology-related events that may be of interest. OVSTA updates as well as testing activity and information on public hearings may be found on the Secretary of State’s website.
When Will Voters Begin Using a New Voting System?
Beginning in 2014, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors took steps to support the County Clerk/Registrar of Voter’s commitment to address the risks posed by an outdated voting system and prepare to replace it. In 2017, County Clerk/Registrar of Voters William F. Rousseau announced his intention to replace the current two “blended” voting systems with a single, modern system that is more effective, secure, and responsive to voter needs. The Registrar of Voters Office expects voters will begin using a new, modern voting system beginning in 2019.
How May Sonoma County Residents Get Involved?
The Registrar of Voters Office will use a competitive bid process to evaluate and select a voting system for Sonoma County to use as early as 2019. Sonoma County Clerk/Registrar of Voters William F. Rousseau wants to hear from voters before the process begins to ensure voter comments are reflected in the selection criteria along with state and federal requirements. What do you like about the current voting system? What are the most important issues to consider when evaluating voting systems? Is paper better than electronic?
Thank you to everyone who provided feedback on the Voting System Replacement Project survey. The survey is now closed.
Are there other ways to get involved? Yes! Democracy belongs to all of us, and the integrity of our electoral process depends on the public to understand their voting rights, register and vote, and become part of the team that makes Election Day successful. The best way for a voter to learn about and protect the integrity of elections is to become a poll worker. On Election Day, poll workers ensure voter rights are protected, verify that ballots and voting equipment are secure, and maintain chain of custody procedures to protect privacy and ensure all eligible votes are cast. For more information, go to the Poll Worker Information page or call (707) 565-6816.
How May I Learn More About Upcoming Changes?
Check back often for more news and updates to the Voting System Replacement Project.