SAN FRANCISCO — Amid growing nationwide concerns about assuring the integrity of the vote in November, developments in California are highlighting vote integrity issues in the state.

Last week state Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced he would join a lawsuit filed by voting rights activists, contending that Diebold Election Systems gave the state of California false information about vote counting equipment sold to Alameda County, east of San Francisco.

The county, which has spent some $11 million on paperless “touch-screen” voting machines, has also joined the lawsuit, originally filed by computer programmer Jim March and voting rights activist Bev Harris in November 2003. Harris has said the suit has national implications, since counties in 30 states have bought the same Diebold equipment and software.

“These cases boil down to allegations of lying to receive taxpayer money,” attorney general’s office spokesperson Tom Dresslar told the Los Angeles Times. “The allegations are … they misrepresented material facts related to those systems.”

The suit claims essential security features were missing from a version of Diebold’s software for counting paper and electronic ballots, leaving an opening for possible tampering. Actual tampering has not been reported in California.

In a telephone interview, California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander said the risks from computerized voting systems, present for a long time, are only now being widely recognized. “In the last two years we have worked very hard to stop the e-voting train wreck,” she said.

Alexander said Alameda County, “the only large county using a paperless system,” is a special concern because problems have occurred in several previous elections using Diebold equipment. She noted that while 14 California counties used touch-screen machines in the March primary, only 10 will use them in November.

After the March 2004 primary elections, the Associated Press reported that malfunctioning equipment forced at least 6,000 of 316,000 Alameda County voters to use backup paper ballots instead of the touch-screen systems, while in San Diego County, over half the polling places failed to open on time because of computer malfunctions.

In May, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned one type of Diebold equipment used in four California counties, and decertified Diebold systems in the 10 others using touch-screen equipment, saying counties using those machines in November must have a voter-verified paper record or implement a list of special security measures. Shelley said the company had pressed the counties to install systems that hadn’t been adequately tested and approved by federal and state authorities, and then had made false statements about the status of the machines.

Diebold voting systems have aroused concerns throughout the country after revelation last fall of a letter by Ohio-based CEO Walden O’Dell — a major donor to Republican candidates — highlighting his commitment to “helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president.” Other Diebold board members are also staunch GOP backers.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.

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