Over the last decade, California has received more than $380 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds to replace antiquated voting equipment and improve voting systems. In a highly critical report released last week, the California state auditor found that the state "has not effectively spent HAVA funds."
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state's chief elections officer, should be held accountable for the failure. In 2007, six counties had used a portion of federal HAVA money, more than $22 million, to purchase touch-screen voting machines. Over strong objections from those counties' registrars, Bowen decertified all touch-screen machines just 180 days before the 2008 presidential primaries.
Reversing the position of her predecessor, former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, Bowen concluded touch-screen voting was vulnerable to tampering. A number of county registrars strongly disagreed. Nonetheless, as secretary of state, Bowen is authorized to set standards for voting machines in California and she prevailed.
But that was five years ago. Bowen has been in office for more than six years. In all that time she has failed to adopt new voting system standards. Most touch-screen voting machines have been mothballed.
The use of those still allowed is heavily restricted. Meanwhile, $131 million in HAVA money that could be used to purchase alternative voting machines that do meet the secretary's standards sits in a bank account. It's collecting interest because Bowen has failed to establish any standards.
Counties, stuck with antiquated voting equipment that don't meet the requirements of federal voting law, face lawsuits.
Lee Lundrigan, the registrar of voters for Stanislaus County, said every HAVA dollar spent in this county has gone for certified material that remains in use, things such as voting tabulators, ballot marking devices for the blind, vote-by-mail equipment and other materials for the disabled.
"We did not buy touch-screen machines," she said. The county has received almost $6 million in HAVA grants since 2003. A little more than $1 million of that is left, and Lundrigan said the county wants to use it to upgrade its vote-counting equipment, which was purchased in 2003.
"The secretary of state won't certify any new equipment and we can't even buy replacement parts for our 10-year-old equipment," she said.
That's typical of the problems for all counties.
And burned by their experience in 2007, voting machine vendors are reluctant to enter the California market. As the state auditor stated in her report, "There appears to be a lack of clarity for the counties buying voting machines, the manufacturers who make them and the general public as to what California's expectations are for its voting systems."
Bowen said she agrees with the audit's recommendation that her office should "make it a priority to develop regulations describing voting system standards in accordance with state law." She then goes on to say that her office began drafting regulations just last April. That's fully five years after she dumped the old standards and decertified touch-screen machines unacceptably late.
Beyond the lack of guidance on voting machine standards, the audit report criticizes the secretary of state's office for failing to establish a voter registration system that fully complies with federal law as almost every other state has done.
Bowen took office with a reputation as tech-savvy politician. Her performance to date hasn't come close to meeting that reputation, even when you factor in budget cuts her agency shouldered during the economy's downturn. In February, the Pew Charitable Trust released a report ranking California 48th out of 50 states in elections administration. It looks like it will be up to the next secretary of state to make California a leader not a laggard in administering voting.