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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Making California chad-free

January 30, 2001

Until last November, almost no one in California knew "chad" is the name for the tiny confetti-like pieces of paper voters are supposed to punch from their ballots in order to register their choice.

But Arnold Steinberg did. The longtime Republican political consultant managed the 1980 campaign of former GOP Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, who was narrowly elected in an upset that year — with hanging chads and the methods by which they were counted proving decisive.

That was the last time before the fall presidential election that anyone talked about pregnant chads, dimpled chads and chads hanging by a string or two from computer punch card ballots.

The punch card system proved as full of potential misinterpretation and cheating then as it did in Florida.

"The whole thing hung on the shape of the chads," Steinberg remembers. "It was ridiculous."

Because it was equally ridiculous last fall, a strong move is on to make California a chad-free state. Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg — who lives dead center in Fiedler's old San Fernando Valley district — wants $300 million in the next state budget to modernize California voting.

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Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones wants $270 million for the same purpose.

It's already happening without state money in some places. Election returns came quicker than ever before last fall in far-flung Riverside County, which did away with paper ballots in all its 715 polling places.

All votes other than absentees were cast on touch-screen computers similar to those behind fast-food counters. This produced an almost instantaneous count, an end to spoiled ballots and the kind of questionable vote counts that plagued Florida.

It was part of a gradual move to electronic voting all over California.

Touch screen computers were available for advance voting for three weeks before the election at 11 locations in Los Angeles County and in several public buildings in the San Francisco Bay area cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Fremont. There were experiments with various forms of Internet voting, too.

How did all this work out? The pre-election touch screens drew positive reviews from all who used them. In Riverside County, where directions were given entirely in English, even most Spanish speakers reported the process was easy. It also ended decades of collecting paper ballots over many hours, then flying or trucking them to a entral site for counting. Even with a 30-minute glitch, full Riverside county results — except absentees — were known less than two hours after the polls closed.

"Voters not only find it easier to use touch screens, they find it fun," said Mischelle Townsend, the county's voter registrar. "It makes the whole process less laborious both for the voter and in the counting."

Meanwhile, the day of home voting via the Internet apparently remains far off, if it ever comes. A state task force appointed by Jones spent much of 1999 and early 2000 evaluating the concept before finding it too much of a fraud risk at today's technological levels.

"Yes, it may be convenient," says task force member Kim Alexander, president of the non-partisan California Voting Foundation, which promotes democracy and voter participation through technology. "Yes, you could vote in your underwear. But there's a price for convenience."

The task force found computer systems susceptible to "Trojan horse" attacks including hackers and viruses that can install themselves in computers without the owner's knowledge and execute computer functions on their own.

"Then you might get whatever president the hackers want," said Alexander.

But touch screens are expensive and old-fashioned punch cards have now been conclusively proven open to varying interpretations. Taken together, all this means computerized voting is coming everywhere, but it may come more slowly than folks disgusted with last fall's debacle may like.

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