SACRAMENTO — In a nondescript storage room, tucked deep behind layers of security doors, a handful of computer experts are wrapping up an intense two months of hacking or otherwise manipulating electronic voting systems.

The rigorous testing for vulnerabilities in touch-screen voting machines is part of an unprecedented "top-to-bottom" review ordered by Secretary of State Debra Bowen to ensure that the state's voting systems are secure — and figure out whether or not they should be certified for use.

She is expected to issue a

report Aug. 3 — six months before the Feb. 5 presidential primaries, a timeline that is making election officials nervous.

Bowen is fulfilling what her supporters and voting security advocates consider to be the mandate she received from last year's election, in which she clashed with her predecessor, Bruce McPherson, over how much scrutiny the state's electronic voting and tabulations systems needed. She won in November amid a national outcry over fears of hacking, vote flipping and election rigging with suspicions squarely aimed at touchscreen voting systems.

"Voting machine companies are quaking in their boots," said Brad Friedman, the author of BradBlog.com, which is devoted to voting security issues. "She's doing exactly what she was elected to do. I will be stunned if they find systems that don't have enormous, gaping vulnerabilities.


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Three vendors — Diebold Elections System of Texas, Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland and Hart InterCivic of Texas — are awaiting the outcome of the review, as are county registrars, who worry that any decertification could lead to chaos on Election Day.

Bowen's team of hackers have worked around the clock in the Secretary of state building's third-floor storage room to intentionally try to alter votes and manipulate how they are counted. The level of testing is beyond what has been done in any other state or in federal testing, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which monitors elections across the state.

"Previous testing looked at whether the systems work the way vendors said they're supposed to work," Alexander said. "It didn't include scenarios that would crop up in real elections, such as a software attack or the taking down of a polling place through technical manipulation."

Bowen said the review is merely part of her job description: to secure elections and instill confidence in voters.

"We want to assure voters that the tools for voting are secure for democracy," Bowen said. "We want to put to rest any controversy about voting systems or voting itself."

But elections officials aren't convinced that a review this close to an election is wise or even necessary.

"What's the problem the secretary is trying to resolve?" asked Stephen Weir, the Contra Costa County registrar and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. "Show me where the systems have actually been hacked and where votes have been changed. There's no evidence of it. It's theoretical. I get that. But we shouldn't be discussing theoretical this close to an election."

Weir also argued that the tests don't take into account the defenses that clerks put up.

A spokesman for Texas-based Diebold Elections System, who remained confident that Diebold's system will be approved, said suspicions of hacking are overwrought.

"You have some who've made allegations that are either unfounded or rely on a scenario not reflective of a true election environment," said David Bear. "It's all based on a scenario of a so-called hacker with complete and unlimited access to a system."

Skepticism over Diebold's system runs deep. Voting rights advocates remember Diebold's former CEO, Walden O'Dell, promising to deliver Ohio's vote to President Bush in 2004. And McPherson's approval of Diebold's touch-screen machine last year came after his predecessor, Kevin Shelley, had decertified it.

Alameda County, one of the first in California to use Diebold touch-screen voting machines, scrapped the Diebold system last year.

after repeated malfunctions kept thousands of voters from casting their ballots in 2004. It is now under contract with Sequoia, which is also under review. Santa Clara County also uses Sequoia, while San Mateo uses Hart. Contra Costa County employs Election Systems & Software (ES&S), which will go through a different certification process in the fall.

Bowen would not specify what systems counties would use if the touchscreen systems fail the tests. But experts say that, at minimum, Bowen would order counties to put in stricter auditing practices such as hand-counting more than the 1 percent of ballots now required to verify results. Or, she could order county registrars to return to paper ballots.

Either way, California requires a voter verified paper audit trail — a law authored by Bowen when she was a state senator and chairwoman of the Senate Elections Committee.

Electronic systems are easier for elderly, foreign-language and disabled voters, and election officials like them because of quick turnarounds on vote counts.

A return to paper or punch card ballots being fed to optical scanners, election officials say, would cause a huge slowdown in counting votes.

"We'll figure out what to do with the results once we get them," Bowen said. "I'll work with counties any way possible to make sure everyone has equipment ... so they can conduct elections with what we know are results that are reliable."

Some wonder if Bowen has a predisposition to rid the state of touchscreen machines, given her history, her campaign and the people with whom she's surrounded herself. For instance, one of her deputy secretaries, Lowell Finley, is a Berkeley lawyer who sued McPherson for approving Diebold touch-screen voting machines.

"She certainly gave every indication she'd do everything it took to get Diebold out of the state," said Matt Rexroad, who was McPherson's political consultant during the campaign. "I don't know how they get a fair hearing by the chief elections officer."

Weir, the state's top registrar, said that clerks could decide to ignore Bowen's findings and continue to use their systems, which are already federally qualified — which would almost certainly create a legal standoff.

That would be a mistake, said Alexander, the voting security expert.

"What's most important is that we have election results that are accurate and that the public has confidence in," Alexander said. "We don't audit elections for the convenience of election workers. We do it for having a representative democracy."

Contact Steven Harmon at sharmon@cctimes.com or 916-441-2101.