By Josh Koehn
San Jose Inside | Metro
In an area that’s figuring out humanity’s future, or at least its space travel plans, smartphones and connected thermostats, the process of determining who will represent it in the United States Congress, lead its biggest city and watch over its water supply is underway.
A young man, surrounded by a few serious faces and swaying bodies with half-empty Chardonnay glasses, clicks the refresh icon on his laptop’s browser. It’s to no avail. A wall in one of the San Jose Marriott’s ballrooms, illuminated by projected election results, displays the frozen statistics the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters released three hours earlier.
The pinstriped union bosses. Political consiglieres with shocks of white hair or greased Pacino manes. Community activists who look agitated as usual. Significant others who want another drink. They have all come here to celebrate Dave Cortese’s presumptive triumph in the San Jose mayor’s race.
Instead they grouse about the cash bar, pick at cupcakes and sugar cookies in tables behind the TV stage, look at the wall and wait on a prayer. Time drags on.
Silicon Valley may be home base to many of the world’s most celebrated technical disruptors, but it also holds the dubious distinction of using a voting system that, to be kind, is, well, not exactly state of the art. Only one county in the state took longer than Santa Clara County to tabulate its election results. Mono County, the state’s slowest county, probably deserves a little leeway on its last-place finish; it spans 1,209 rural square miles of nowhere, straddling the border of the Yosemite and Stanislaus national forests.
But in what has become a consistently embarrassing reminder that the public sector could screw up a one-car funeral procession, Santa Clara County failed yet again last week to get out of its own way and deliver election results in a timely manner. The reasons vary—from a $19 million investment in 5,500 disenfranchised voting machines, most of which gathered dust in a county warehouse for the last seven years, to a sharp increase in absentee voting that kept county workers tabulating results an extra five days after the election. The likelihood that things will improve soon begs one simple answer: get real.
Shannon Bushey and Matt Moreles looked at one another Wednesday evening and realized it was time to go home. Both were tweaked on coffee and Red Bulls and beginning to feel the silliness that comes from sleep deprivation. Neither had gotten a wink of sleep in more than 37 hours. Both wore the same clothes they’d put on a day before. Election Day and Night (and another day and night) had made monsters of them.
As head of the Registrar of Voters, Bushey instructed her No. 2 to go home and get some food and sleep. She would do the same, mostly unaware of the frustration brewing outside of her office. She hasn’t been to an election night party in 20 years. But the anger would become apparent two days later, when word leaked that the ROV’s IT director, Joseph Le, walked off the job on election eve, casting doubt on why it took so long for Bushey’s office to gather results.
Sources tell San Jose Inside that Le quit because he felt unfairly singled out for a mistake in sample ballots, which were sent out in September and omitted information about candidates for the boards of Santa Clara County Unified School District and Gilroy’s Gavilan Community College. The exact tab of such a blunder is unknown, but is likely to have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Le reportedly chafed at having his work double-checked the rest of the way.
Bushey wouldn’t comment on the circumstances of Le’s departure—it’s a personnel matter, of course—but she insisted the accuracy of vote totals was unaffected. “None of our processes depend on one person,” she says. To prove the point, Bushey took the unusual step of asking the Secretary of State to examine the office’s execution. While not consulted, the call for a review apparently has support from her overseers.
“I think Shannon was making the prudent step, even though we’re all very confident that there are no irregularities in the counting,” county executive Jeff Smith says.
Slow results, several miscues on sample ballots and rumor of a mutiny within the ROV has once again cast a spotlight on an office that has undergone a decade of dysfunction. The last ROV, Barry Garner, resigned under a cloud of suspicion in early 2013. Sources tell San Jose Inside he was accused of sexual harassment by a staffer—and a similar incident during his employment as Fulton County, Georgia’s elections chief was apparently missed in the pre-hiring background check. Before that, Jesse Durazo oversaw the ROV for nine years. His tenure was distinguished by repeated absentee ballot count slipups, but he’s credited with increasing the number of people who vote by mail—a customer-friendly improvement that, ironically, has contributed to the current mess.
By far, however, the biggest setback to the county ROV’s mission of making election results public in a timely fashion occurred in 2007, when California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified 5,500 electronic voting machines that the county had purchased for roughly $19 million from Sequoia Voting Systems in 2003. (Funds came from a combination of the county, the state and the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.)
Bowen, interestingly enough, was elected a year earlier with the help of the very same machines that her campaign platform opposed. Six months after taking office, she enlisted a team of University of California computer scientists, who over the course 28 days hacked three separate electronic voting systems: Diebolt, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia.
“Debra Bowen basically ran on a platform of the electronic voting machines in California not being safe and secure,” says Warren Slocum, a San Mateo county supervisor and Bay Area expert on electronic voting systems. He was elected as supervisor two years ago after serving as San Mateo County’s election chief for 25 years. “And to her credit there was evidence that the concerns were well-founded.”
County employees worked 12-hour shifts each day last week to sort and count the 140,000-plus vote-by-mail ballots.
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.”