Forging Trails

The County Clerk'S Recent Decision On Voting Machines Provokes Debate Among Area Residents

Jessica Cassyle Carr
7 min read
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Some concerned citizens waited with bated breath last week as the state's 33 county clerks made decisions that will impact many election processes to come. On Monday, Dec. 5, the officials were obligated to select one of three Help America Vote Act (HAVA) compliant voting machines for the disabled. HAVA, which was signed into law in October 2003, provides federal money for voter database systems, poll worker training, voter education (such as TV commercials) as well as enough funds for one American Disability Act compliant voting machine per polling place.

In Bernalillio County, and other heavily populated counties such as Santa Fe, Dona Ana and Sandoval, county clerks selected the Sequoia Edge machine, which uses a touch screen and a paper audit system where five tapes containing the votes are produced. Some of the smaller counties chose the Automark, an optical scan system which uses a paper ballot, executes the vote on a machine and is then placed in a tabulator.

But what would seem to be a fairly simple process has elicited heated responses from citizens in Bernalillo County, and some residents are upset with County Clerk Mary Herrera's decision to go with the Sequoia.

“I saw so many things go wrong with provisional voting; with absentee ballots so much misinformation was given to poor people, most of them Hispanic,” said Ana Canales, who worked the polls during the last general election. “There’s just so much frustration and anger right now, and it all came from the elections of 2004.”

A lawsuit was recently filed on behalf of New Mexico voters who reject the use of Sequoia machines, claiming the machines caused major problems in the last general election and lost 12,000 votes in Bernalillo County during the 2002 elections. Other concerns are that the machines are discriminatory, in that they don't accommodate all disabilities and don't record Spanish language votes. Joyce Bartly, for instance, voted on a Sequoia machine in the last election and claims to have experienced “vote switching,” where she indicated her vote for one person and it repeatedly indicated another candidate. “It was frustrating and I felt a bit shaken by the whole experience. It was traumatic just trying to get the thing to work.”

Last Monday, prior to the deadline on the decision, a press conference was called at Civic Plaza by a group of New Mexico voters along with organizations United Voters of New Mexico, Verified Voting New Mexico and Voter Action. The groups distributed information and then descended on Herrera’s office to present signed letters expressing discontent with the Sequoia machines, under the false impression that Hererra was holding a press conference of her own. Hererra was not in her office. The group spent roughly 15 minutes questioning the county clerk’s Systems Coordinator Daniel Garcia and the Bureau of Elections Coordinator Jeff Carabajal, as two security guards hovered around the crowd.

United Voters of New Mexico Coordinator Paul Stokes said his organization preferred that Herrera purchase the Automark, adding that he believed the machines were superior in meeting the needs of the disabled community and in terms of general voting because they use paper ballots. “The touch screen machines do not produce a paper trail at this point. Possibly, it could be retrofitted at some time, but it cannot do this now.” Stokes said he hoped Herrera would choose the Automark after hearing that the public believed it to be superior.

In 2000, Herrera purchased 300 Sequoia machines and said her reason for choosing them again this time around is because she wanted to stick with the same system. She said every voting machine she’s ever worked with has had some problems and garnered complaints, and testified that she used to have to fix jammed lever machines during elections. Additionally, she said the paper ballot systems Ohio exclusively uses have caused nothing but problems for the state.

Herrera argued against the benefits of paper trails on voting machines and said her highest rate of undervoting (referring to ballots that have been cast but show no selection) in Bernalillo County comes from paper absentee ballots because they get mismarked and are thrown out. “Sometimes we get up to 85 items on the ballot, and I don’t believe people standing in line are going to wait,” she added, indicating that the paper trails in the Automark system are more time-consuming.

Cost is another part of the equation. According to Herrera, the Automark component system costs approximately $10,000 per machine while the Sequoia Edge runs around $3,500. “The companies are not taking my software every election and programming these machines so Bush can win [the presidential race]; I wouldn’t have made that choice if I felt [the public's] votes weren’t being counted,” Herrera said. “I strongly believe I made the best decision for the taxpayers of Bernalillo County.”

Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron said all voting machines in the state are required to leave a paper audit trail, which are paper records of the votes that have been made on each machine. The difference between the Automark and the Sequoia is the Automark's paper audit trail comes from its original paper ballots, while the Sequoia's trail comes from a printout. Vigil-Giron added that no machines produce receipts to voters. Her response to those who are unhappy with Herrera's choice to use Sequoias was: “If they don't want to vote on one of those machines that they have at their polling places, then I would recommend for them to go vote early on a paper ballot or request that an absentee ballot be sent to their home.” Herrera made the same suggestion.

By 2007, Bernalillo County will have to replace 1,100 machines that were purchased in the '80s. It's anticipated that the machines will be Sequoias, which may include a new component that would allow the voter to view the ballot being printed through glass.

Man On The Street

The Alibi asked some Albuquerque folks how they feel about voting machines that don't use paper ballots. Here's what they had to say.

Albert Palna

“For the most advanced country [in the world] not to know how to count votes is a major problem. In New Mexico, people don’t even realize there were a lot of votes uncounted, or they’re not sure, there’s no way to verify it. I think the problem even beyond that is that it’s corporations that have their hand in this and nobody knows how.”

Larry Johnson

“Well, since I’m a volunteer in the election program, where I live I volunteer to work at the voting booths whenever I can, and I think you definitely need [a paper trail] because that’s the only way we can really track what’s going on. I think it'd be a real problem if you didn’t have something to support what people do. Because we have a lot of things that we do when we’re voting to make sure it’s correct, so I think it’s a good thing to have paper ballots.”

Carolyn Fincke

“Hmmm, I haven’t really given it much thought. I think a paper trail is important. Yeah, I’m not really sure. I guess I don’t know about those voting machines.”

David Cole

“I think it’s the way to go, as long as there’s a bonified backup system behind it to ensure that it’s secure, and all of the steps are being taken to make sure the programs work and it’s backed up into a third party place.”

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